A Christmas Message from Abraham Kuyper

The following was originally published in De Heraut on December 23rd, 1894.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2: 7 (ESV)

In the face of the disfavor of the times passing over Christ’s church, Christmas is taking on increasing significance.

In an evil hour, the church of Christ began to dream the seductive dream of being a triumphant church even here on earth. That was her sin in the otherwise so fascinating Middle Ages; and while it is true that through the Reformation she became a militant church again, and experienced the blessing of this return to her holy calling here on earth, even then she only partially awoke from her false dream. For yes, she did fight again, and she sealed that fight with her most precious blood, but wrongly did she imagine that she had to fight that fight only with the “false church” and with heresy in her own bosom. Even in the days of Luther and Calvin, the great, the powerful, the all-controlling opposition between Christ and the world did not return to its original, God-willed significance; and scarcely had a truce with Rome come about, and had the nations of Europe been divided from Rome by the peace of Munster, than the old dream of being a triumphant church, on our own soil at least, begin to gain power over our Reformed fathers again. Wherever they were master of minds, they also wanted to rule; in their estimation, the power of the church increasingly supplanted victory over the world; and, of course, such a false position could only be bought by a guilty bargain with the world.

That cessation, or, rather, that shifting and thus falsification of the struggle has borne its bitter fruit for our Reformed churches, and thus also for believers. The hard but ever so true proverb, that rest rusts, has also proven true to her and them. The Reformed churches also lost their intimacy and the succulence of their lives. Externalization gained the upper hand, and out of resentment against this externalization the pious life withdrew into mystical separation. The stagnant waters began to ooze poisonous gases, and from all sides spiritual sickness broke out. And this process of sickness would have continued, and still all freshness would have remained dull, if He to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth, had not continued the world’s struggle against His church. But He has continued it, and though His people have bled under it, He has unleashed the world against His church on earth with new fierceness. Like Job she had to be tested, and through disaster upon disaster she had to see her power diminished, her influence broken, so that just after that cutting off of the plant at the root, the holy seed that is in that root would turn out to be the buttress, and the honor, not of ecclesiastical rulers but of the gold of faith, would shine with renewed brilliance.

And although the false comforters, the Eliphazes, Bildads and Zophars, came to the deeply wounded and defeated church, the true people of God did not allow themselves to be lulled to sleep by their swoon, but fought their battles through, not wanting to be comforted or strengthened except as that comfort and that strengthening came from their God.       

But precisely because of this, the birth of Christ has now become something completely different for Jesus’ church. As long as people imagined they were a half triumphant church, the church did not understand Christmas. There was very learned discourse in the pulpit, but without enthusiasm, without warmth, without the glow of love. And where, mostly outside the pulpit, that warmth was present, there it expressed itself in mystical contemplation or in the strained song of love. And when Christmas got progressively poorer and colder, they finally filled the void with the Christmas tree and welcomed the children. So at least, where no glory as of God’s angels shone, there was candlelight around Christ’s church at Christmas.

And in the meantime, the world continued its painful victories. The ecclesiastical bonds that for years held it captive it broke in bitter anger. It became aware that it possessed a spirit of its own, and that it was merely a matter of giving form and shape to that spirit, so as to transfer the supremacy of the ecclesiastical estate to its territory with one stroke. Now a century ago, in 1789, when the revolution broke out in Paris, that battle was fought, and indeed, since that year, the power of the world, as it goes against the Christ, and lives by its own roots, has become more and more ferociously organized, has brought its spirit to dominate the life of the people, and already now, now that barely a century has passed, it has succeeded in destroying all the shining triumphs of the church and has not only shattered the external power of the church but has robbed her of souls by millions and again millions. For while it is true that in the countryside and in the lower classes of the people there is still a majority calling for Jesus, at least in name and appearance, whoever examines carefully how systematically and restlessly the most resolute unbelief from the circle of the learned has descended into our upper class, and has already affected the class of the well-to-do bourgeoisie, cannot nor will not doubt that the same unbelief must also gradually poison the broader class of our people, as is already abundantly evident in the socialist and, even worse, in the anarchist upheaval. It is its spirit, its world plan, its intention, its kingdom that it opposes the spirit of Christ, the counsel of God, His holy purpose and the kingdom of heaven in every sphere of life. The half-belief that remains here and there in many families and individuals does not care in the least about that. In that half-belief lies neither resistance nor resilience. It is like the crust of ice which is melting away and becoming steadily thinner. What still retained a certain significance with the fathers is already losing its significance with their children, unless there is a vigorous conversion.

Precisely because of this, however, our Christmas has now become something completely different from the past. Every year when Christmas returns, the fearful, serious question irresistibly forces itself upon us, whether these waters will always flow, and, to put it bluntly, whether, if we will have struggled through another century, the world will have completely conquered, until finally the church of Christ disappears from this earth. This is not a question of cowardice, nor the angst of overstress. Whoever understands the signs of the times and has the courage to face the truth, cannot and must not hide the fact that the question is so serious. For whoever still imagines that the expansion of the field of Christian mercy and of missions prophesies better things for us, does not understand how the growing power of the tree depends not on two or three luxuriantly budding branches, but only on the soundness of the root. You also see before your eyes how already now, in more than one area, the mission work that began Christian has ended in half-belief and unbelief, and how the world is beginning to imitate the works of your love. Nay, there is no doubt, whether in England and America as much as on the Continent of Europe, the world with its unbelieving spirit is still on the winning hand, and no figures, however impressive, of so and so many converts and of so and so many millions of treasure brought together for Christian purposes can undo the sober, the staggering fact that the people of God see their ranks shrinking and that our once-believing families and households, with the growth of a coming generation, are all the more becoming a prey, a spoil, a robbery of the spirit of the world.

So there is left to you, to your Christmas, nothing, nothing but your faith, to prophesy, in the face of so much devastation, of a triumph, of a certain triumph that is sure to come for the cause of the Lord, provided you have the courage to break once and for all with every notion as if that triumph were already here on earth and as if that certain triumph were promised to us in this dispensation. What is before your eyes all runs against you, and if there are still those among you who flatter themselves with better things, it is only because they still too often take appearance for the real thing, and in their spiritual egotism they feel rich in the flies of their own web, without even remotely caring about humanity and human life in its broad dimensions. But when this pretense is unmasked for you, and you have escaped the curse of spiritual egotism, then truly the night that descends upon the Christian inheritance grows darker and darker, and there is no other power that can turn your despondency into high courage than the power of your faith; always on condition that it be a faith received in grace, resting in God’s holy Word, and going forth also, indeed, to your own blessedness, yet first of all and most of all enticed and enkindled by the burning thirst of soul for the honor of God and His Christ.

And if this is your spiritual point of view, then, undoubtedly, in that same Christmas which concerns your soul with such a serious question, there is also an uncommon power to strengthen within you that prophecy and that protest of your faith with which you answer the cry of triumph of the world. For you will be told that other world religions have also had their time of rise, of flourishing, of decline and of fall, and that, according to established law, your Christian religion too cannot have a different fate. Especially are you reminded of the once so terrifying power of Islam, when the Crescent as an all-consuming and propelling stream in less than a century made Christ’s church tremble in three parts of the world, while with Islam now there is little else to speak of but decline, decay and dilapidation. And certainly, the once blood-red history of Mohammed’s actions is moving. The church of Christ in Asia and Africa was completely destroyed by it; indeed, deep into Europe well-nigh devastating blows were dealt to the church. And what once shone in majesty, so destructive and resisted by nothing, is now like the lamp that goes out, like the flame that dies. Yet what does this bloody interlude of Islam have in common with the glory of the Christ? Or is Mohammed something more than a national hero, who first gained male strength and then sent forth the all-consuming fire? But here you stand at the manger, here it is not the man but the newborn child who asks for the sacrifice of your honor; here in the very birth of Him who was to come, the salvation He brings is already sealed.

Mary gave birth to her firstborn son; such is the beginning in our Gospel and the fullness of that Gospel. Here not a new appearance through the miraculous word and deed, and in that appearance the beginning of his appearance. No, already the child, as a child, has as rich a meaning here as the holy history that comes afterwards. Yes, behind that child, behind his birth and holy conception, lies the history of a whole people who learned to cry out for that child and built their hope on that child as on his Messiah. That child, when he comes, is not an unknown, not a new X among the born individuals, whose meaning will be revealed only later, when he grows up. That child was expected, not by Mary alone, but by all of God’s people throughout the ages, and what that child would be and what that child would bring to the world was already written in the divine program of prophecy even before Mary gave birth. Mary, when she carried this child under her heart and later gave birth to this holy child Jesus, was not merely a mother like so many other women, nor was she merely heir to the hope of her fathers. What was in her heart was more than Israel’s hope for its Messiah, it was the expectation of mankind, which went out to its Redeemer and Savior. Mary was the representative of our whole race. It is not the Jewish, but the sanctified human that has the overtone in her singing. It is as if the deep tone of lamentation which rose from the human heart after Paradise had been lost, came to full purity of expression in her. Thus, in her, the manger of Bethlehem connects directly to what was transacted between God and fallen man in Paradise. Eve, the mother of life, who received the promise of the holy seed, finds in Mary her only legitimate heir. However, and this is all the glory of our Christmas, what in Paradise was only a sorrow of contemplation and a salvation in holy promise has here, in Mary, become reality, tangible power and divine reality. With Eve it is a lamentation and a hearing of consolation; but with Mary the word of promise has become flesh and blood, she no longer laments and wants to be consoled, but she receives into her own insides and from her own insides she gives birth, gives birth to her firstborn son. Not that she does it, for God does it in her, but she is and remains the chosen instrument, and therefore she is hailed of angels and men as the “blessed one among women.”

We are forbidden to enter into the deep mystery of that childbearing; but what may and must be pointed out is that the woman who tempted Adam, and in Adam the whole world, received the judgment of her guilt in that very childbearing. No fact, therefore, is repeatedly referred to in Holy Scripture, both in prophecy and in Jesus’ own word, as much as that childbearing in affliction imposed on the mother of life because of her guilt. With that “childbearing in affliction” the severity of the divine judgment penetrated into the very origin of our human life; and even though common grace has softened and mitigated it, the affliction of childbirth continues to haunt the daughters of every coming generation. This giving birth in affliction is not a Jewish singularity, but a general human portion, arising from the very origin of our human life. It is the holy wrath of God, which glimmers so dreadfully into the very root of our lives. And see, just as the curse now extends over that woman’s childbearing, so it is from that same woman’s childbearing that we receive the healing of our wound, or, as our Catechism so beautifully and tellingly expresses it, through that childbearing of Mary’s firstborn Son our guilt, in which we have been conceived and born, is covered before God. It is not a salvation that comes to us mechanically and from without, but a salvation that is granted by God Almighty in the very root of our lives.

But this irrevocably cuts off any comparison of our Christian religion with everything that outside it calls itself “world religion.” There is only one world religion, only one religion that comes from the very source of human life, and therefore only one salvation that in truth bears the general human character, and that salvation is in the Christ. God so loved the world that He gave us the Son of His love. And therefore, no law of rise, prosperity and fall can be applicable here. The Gospel of Bethlehem was eighteen centuries ago just what it is today, and it will remain so until the return of the Lord, no matter how much mankind may seek to pervert the very character of that divine Gospel. Whoever seeks another way to salvation will not be saved. It depends here not on the number but on the purity of the confessors, and even if once again the number of Christ’s subjects melted away to the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal, in those seven thousand Christ’s church will still continue her glorious life, and there will eternally be no other blossoming for our human race than from that little flock, which is despised by the world but known to God, and which bears the name of the Lord in its innermost being.

And therefore, he who may belong to that flock does not delay, no matter how the stream of the life of peoples restlessly churns and lifts its unholy sludge from below. He who believes, believes not in men, nor in the number of men, nor in the approval of men, but stands resolutely alone in his solitary station, seeing the Unseen One and being supported by “the everlasting arms of mercy.” Rather, the loud, open, and once again direct action of the spirit of the world against the spirit of his Savior is a fervent sign to him that the blindfold has fallen away, the half-heartedness has come off, and that the battle is resuming in the manner that God had ordained and as that battle always should have been.

The fact is, the festiveness of our Christmas celebration is muted by it. The loud and often hollow jubilation is tempered, and seriousness takes over. It is no longer Christianity that rises above the world in the awareness of its own excellence, but the little flock that, as the storm approaches, clings again with something of the humility that adorned Mary to the manger that holds her child. However, the joy of the soul, which has nothing in common with that outward jubilation, will be all the more intense because of it. The manger, that child, the high fact that Mary received the Holy Spirit and gave birth to her firstborn son, will become all the richer for our faith. Christ’s church will no longer wish to be a dominating power on earth, but, like Mary, the handmaid of the Lord. And the prayed-for fruit will be this, that as Mary received from the Holy Spirit, so also will the church receive power from the Holy Spirit to give birth, in honor of Mary’s firstborn, to her faith, her love, and her hope for the world.          

Thus far Abraham Kuyper. What is striking about this piece, apart from the usual erudition and eloquence it evinces, is its depressed tone. Especially for a Christmas message! This is certainly unusual for Kuyper’s writing. Perhaps it can be explained by the circumstances of the time. Bratt elucidates:

Kuyper’s winter grippe was worse than usual in 1893, disrupting his work and sleep. Things got much worse after the bruising campaign of 1894: Kuyper left on his usual summer vacation but nearly died in Brussels on the way home. He had to repair, once again, to the south of France, then to Tunisia, to rest his nerves and repair his lungs. Once again he had to give up journalism, this time for half a year rather than a year and a half, but this time haunted, not helped, by Lohman. The practical cause of his collapse was that, as twenty years before, Kuyper had added parliamentary work to his existing load; in the 1890s that included daily journalism, party management, and a full university teaching schedule. After his 1876 collapse and again in his mid-Doleantie musings, Kuyper had been perceptive enough to identify parliamentary work as especially stressful to him — whether from its daily grind, its face-to-face polemics, the visions of grandeur it inspired, its submergence of high principle in tedium and procedure, or various of these in some combination. Hooykaas had given him a warning list: “I hate politics! It’s a curse on society, the downfall of many people’s character, the cause of moral blindness, the source of untruth, unrighteousness, and I know not what.”

James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), pp. 235–236.

But adverse personal circumstances give no excuse for presenting Dutch political and ecclesiastical history in such colors. To cope, it seems, Kuyper turns to his usual whipping boys – the national church and the historical close relation of church and state. And indeed, criticism of his presentation was not long in coming. The following response to Kuyper’s article, written by Jan Kuiper, was published on February 4th, 1895, in De Gereformeerde Kerk, the weekly edited by P. J. Hoedemaker.

As you can see, it is all lamentations. Nevertheless, we say with our Groen van Prinsterer: “We do not forget, that Holland has the most costly obligation to the Reformation (which likewise according to Dr. K. desired a triumphant church[1]), that the greatness of the united Netherlands was always attached to the prosperity of the Reformed Christian Church (which, one knows, were most closely united); that under the banner of the Reformed Faith, freedom, tolerance, prosperity, national power and greatness were found here to a greater extent than in any other country; that the pure Gospel, in opposition to the errors of the Papal church, was identified with the existence of people and state, and that also this national right, although changed by circumstances, was nevertheless not destroyed by the foolish whims of a generation that in 1795 denied God.” (Bijdrage tot herziening der grondwet in Nederlandsche zin [Contribution to the revision of the constitution in the Dutch sense], pp. 72–73; emphasis added.)             

When church and state are united, the latter shares in the blessings of the former, because the church is the bearer of the state. The church of Christ gives the people reverence for the government, submission to all who sit in high office, obedience to the laws of the land, strength to act, courage to fight, comfort in adversity and gratitude when good fortune serves and prosperity spreads its blessings, and it is inevitable that all this has an immediate beneficial effect on the state and increases its strength and prestige.

The heyday of the Dutch Reformed church was also the heyday of the Dutch state. That gives us a lot to think about. Then followed a time of decline for the church, which was closely followed by the decline of the state.     

“To him who rights his way, I will show the salvation of God” (Ps. 50: 23), says the Lord. But also: “He who forsakes God has sorrow upon sorrow to fear” (Ps. 32: 5, Psalter of 1773). Yet that decline of the church was not caused by her connection with the state, but by the fact that the members of the church turned away from God. If a church is in truth a people’s church, then the influence which the state exercises on her is of the same nature as her content; if that content is good, then that influence is limited and beneficial; if that content is bad, then that influence is also pernicious. In this respect, the church reaps her own fruit and reaps whatever she has sown.

But Dr. Kuyper falls into the same error into which Dr. Bronsveld and so many others fall, and blames the principle for that which is only due to human sin and error. Let Dr. K. et al. prove that the abuses which they point out are the result of, and therefore inseparably connected with, the principle of the unification of church and state. But this they cannot do.

Every church, even the free church, has her days of rest, in which she finds out that rust is so difficult to ward off. When the Free Church in Scotland returned “to her holy calling here on earth,” she at first did experience a touch of cheerful spiritual life (always associated with days of struggle) but soon after and even today she has experienced so little of the blessing that must accompany that return. Dr. K. knows this too, as he has pointed out her decline more than once. And likewise the free churches in America are finding that more is needed for their prosperity than to be “free”; that the Spirit of the Lord must blow through the garden and breathe life into the dry bones.[2]

1] We adopt this word “triumphant” with reservations. In reality, likewise in our opinion, a triumphant church is possible in heaven. On this point we hope to explain ourselves in more detail later.

[2] Likewise, the free churches in the Netherlands are not experiencing the blessings of being militant again to any great extent. Already her own teachers and members accuse her and one of her Synods of nothing less than breach of promise and faithlessness. And likewise Dr. K. himself complains in De Heraut of Feb. 10, 1895 (Art. “Spiritual dryness” I): “First of all, enthusiasm no longer burns with as high a flame as it used to: and secondly, the spiritual fruits that one gets to see and taste are no longer as fine or as juicy as they were when the heat of the day rose over us.” Oh, blessed fruits of freedom so loudly praised. The praise that Dr. K. sends you is contradicted time and again by his own paper!