On a recent trip I began James D. Bratt’s, terrific new biography of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. I knew (or thought I knew) the outlines of Kuyper’s life but there was an aspect that I did not know: Kuyper was deeply affected by the QIRE for a three-year period from 1875–78.
The QIRE or the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, is a sub-species of an over-realized eschatology or the desire to experience more of heaven now, in this life, than is promised by Scripture. It comes in many forms and seemingly strikes without warning. That Kuyper was briefly afflicted with a serious case of the QIRE is interesting because he was a great student of Reformed theology. He was well read in the primary sources of Reformed theology. He did his doctoral work on Johannes a Lasko (1499—1560; AKA Laski or Waski). He wrote an undergraduate thesis comparing Calvin’s ecclesiology with a Lasko’s.
As you may know, Kuyper was prone to work himself to physical and nervous breakdown. He did so in 1861 and again 1876–77. During the second episode he became quite attracted to the “Higher Life” movement and piety. This was a quasi-pentecostal movement that downplayed doctrine, confessions, and the due use of ordinary means in favor of the immediate encounter with the risen Christ. This wasn’t the first time Kuyper had been attracted to forms of pietism and subjectivism. As a young man he was essentially a Socinian. When he was first converted it was to a generic form of broad, pietist evangelicalism. He only gradually became confessionally Reformed.
What is fascinating about this episode, however, is that it occurred 12 years after he had embraced the Reformed confession. Exhausted, he attended a series of Higher Life meetings in Brighton, England led by the energetic Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitehall Smith. He was so impressed with what he saw and experienced at Brighton he took it back to the Netherlands and began advocating it quite forcefully. When I think of Kuyper I think of De Heraut, De Standaard, the Free University, The Doleantie, the GKN, the antithesis, of common grace, of sphere sovereignty, of his study of Reformed orthodoxy, of his devotional writing, and of “every square inch,” but I don’t think of him as an advocate of higher life piety and pietism but he was so briefly. His new passion even led him to criticize Reformed piety as lacking a certain spark. He temporarily adopted (the Arminian) Phoebe Palmer’s language of consecration and laying all on the altar and that Jesus “lives in my heart.” He attempted to connect this way of speaking with Reformed orthodoxy but it was an uneasy union.
After returning from Brighton, however, Kuyper collapsed again. He was discouraged by the discovery that Pearsall Smith had been found in a sexual indiscretion. He rejected an offer by the Brighton folks to work with them even more closely and finally rejected what he later called the “enthusiasm” and perfectionism of the movement. In the Reformed vocabulary “enthusiast” is an adjective historically used to describe the Anabaptists, who themselves pioneered much pietism and of the “second blessing,” “higher life,” perfectionist, and neo-pentecostal pieties. “Pelagius always lurks in the shadows of this heresy” he wrote of perfectionism (Bratt, 101). He admitted that the Brighton movement was dominated by Arminianism.
According to Bratt, it was this dalliance with revivalism and higher life piety that formed the immediate background for his great work, The Work of the Holy Spirit. The antidote for the QIRE was a serious dose of classical Reformed theology from the 17th century. That even Kuyper was subject to this temptation reminds us that the QIRE is so pervasive, so seductive, so widespread, that anyone can become enthralled by it and one can also become disillusioned and return to reality as revealed in Scripture and confessed by the churches. It also signals again that genuine confessional Reformed piety is one thing and the QIRE is another. Genuine Reformed piety isn’t broken. It does not need a booster shot of Anabaptist enthusiasm. It is not dry. It is not arid. It is simply not Anabaptist or Higher Life or perfectionist. It is a piety born of theology of the cross, not a theology of glory.
The good news is that Kuyper also shows that the QIRE doesn’t have to be a permanent condition and that confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice is the antidote.