Harry, could you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Rotterdam and moved with my parent to Canada at the age of 12. Translating has been my hobby ever since.
While attending the annual Kuyper Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary I heard that a translator was being sought for the book Ons program. I volunteered and was accepted on condition that I submit a time schedule. I estimated it would take me 18 months and after 20 months the job was done. I could not have done without the Internet.
What is the background to Ons program?
The Dutch historian and statesman G. Groen van Prinsterer battled his whole life against the repercussions of the French Revolution in his country and the ramifications of secular humanism in Dutch politics. Pastor Abraham Kuyper inherited his position of leadership and looked for ways of making the "anti-revolutionary" movement a more effective fighting machine. He and others gave formal organization to it by means of a national political party for which Kuyper single-handedly composed a "Program of Principles." He wrote a systematic commentary on it in weekly instalments in his daily newspaper. These articles were published in a popular edition in 1880. They helped galvanize his followers and for years was an oft consulted manual for determining what political line to follow.
In what ways is a nineteenth-century political programme relevant for today?
The book Our Program is less a political platform and more a commentary on fundamental principles for engaging in politics from a biblical standpoint. These do not change, although their formulation varies of course with the concrete situation in which one finds oneself. Meanwhile it is fascinating to see how Our Program in places immediately tries to apply those principles to concrete issues of the day. Kuyper's ideas about politics are best mirrored, I think, in the careers of Gladstone in the UK and Woodrow Wilson in the USA. It opens one's mind to a rich heritage that remains inspiring.
As is to be expected after a century and a half, quite a few, if not many, of Kuyper’s notions, suggestions and concrete proposals, even if attractive, would be unworkable today. Despite his originality and his courage to row against the current of his time, he too was very much a child of his time. Ideas that were common coin in his day—such as a romantic view of national genius, an appreciation of the wholesome effects of war, a father’s exclusive headship of the family, an approach to colonial policy as the White Man’s Burden—have long since been moderated or abandoned. Equally open to question may be the apparent ease with which Kuyper detects divine ordinances in specific empirical patterns and historical growths. I would say, therefore, that the enduring value of his musings, dreams and alternatives lies, rather, in the backdrop against which he approaches the whole area of practical politics: his biblically honed common sense, fair-mindedness, indignation at patent injustices, zeal for genuine liberty, and freshness of ideas.
You have mentioned before that North Americans sometimes confuse pluralism with sphere sovereignty. Could you expand on what you mean by this? Why is it important to distinguish the two?
There is sociological pluralism and worldview pluralism. The first distinguishes the plurality of unique structures and relationships (spheres) that compose human society and that are each subject to distinct laws and norms which must be respected (their sovereignty honored) if society is not to become unhinged. The second recognizes that humanity is divided over a plurality of religiously defined worldviews that cannot be treated with coercion but only persuasion, hence demand parity treatment or a level playing field so that each can speak up for its convictions and try to shape society in accordance with them without disadvantage or penalty. To confuse these two pluralisms is to commit a category mistake, which in this case can lead to misconstruing Kuyper's career and goals at several points.
What started your interest in Kuyper?
It's all providential, really. I attended a Reformed day school in Holland, followed by a public high school in Ontario where I experienced the "antithesis" in outlook and learning. I then enrolled in Calvin College in Michigan where Evan Runner became my mentor. My graduate work was done in the Free University of Amsterdam, where I ended up as an instructor in the theory and philosophy of history under the guidance of Meyer Smit. Returning to Canada, our family settled in Hamilton, Ontario, and I taught history for a quarter century at Redeemer University College, an undergraduate school based on Reformed Christianity. Since my retirement I have been involved as a co-editor of the Collected Works of Herman Dooyeweerd. Translating Kuyper texts is more or less a sideline. You should know that my published dissertation was dedicated to the memory of my grandfathers "in whose home I first saw the portraits of some of the leading anti-revolutionaries who appear on the following pages." That book, my only one, dealt with Groen van Prinsterer's lectures in 1845/46 on Unbelief and Revolution, a work that marks the birth-cry of the anti-revolutionary movement in the Netherlands. I guess you could say about me that neo-Calvinism was bred in the bone.
What would you say is the essence of neo-Calvinism?
That Christ came to redeem the world, of which humanity is a crucial part, but only a part.
There seems to be a resurgence in Kuyper studies - several major books have been published this year on or by Kuyper. What do you think has sparked off this resurgence?
Ever since the Chicago Declaration of 1993, American evangelicals have been searching for a full-bodied "public theology," a system of thought that helps analyse the challenges posed by a secularizing public arena. One source that has now been (re)discovered is the work of Abraham Kuyper, especially his elaboration of the doctrines of common grace and the antithesis - common grace creating the possibility and the obligation to engage in the world's affairs, and the antithesis defining the manner in which to do so as a Christian alternative or "third way." As well, when Princeton celebrated the centennial of Kuyper's famous Stone Lectures on Calvinism, it expected 40 people to attend, but 400 came! Soon after, a retired banker endowed a Kuyper Chair at Princeton Seminary, where for the past ten years a student can choose an ethics course, besides Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, in Abraham Kuyper. A Kuyper Study Center there is now equipped with many materials to which researchers are drawn for months on end.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to study more about Kuyper?
Learn Dutch! Hah, fond hope. No, start with Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader that came out with Eerdmans and the Paternoster Press in 1998. Then read some recent publications by Richard Mouw and the well-researched biography of Kuyper by James D. Bratt. Other good books about Kuyper are by Vincent Bacote and James E. McGoldrick. Get your library to subscribe to the Kuyper Center Review that comes out of Princeton.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline that you are working on?
Four of us are doing pieces for an anthology of Kuyper's writings on education.
What do you do for fun?
Translate, play the harmonium, read historical novels, do crossword puzzles.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
Bach's trio sonatas played by blind organist Helmut Walcha.
What books are you reading now?
The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan and a novel about the War of 1812 by David Nevin.
If you were on a desert island and were allowed two luxuries what would you take?
Oh sure, a pipe organ and a New King James Version of the Bible in gilded leather.
Thanks Harry for taking the time to respond to my questions.