The Life of R. B. Kuiper: a Brief Summary
The following first appeared in the February 1991 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine (Issue 329).
Over the years, the Trust has published several books by Dr R. B. Kuiper. However, there are many readers throughout the world who are more familiar with the titles of Kuiper’s books than with the man himself. It is close on twenty-five years since Kuiper passed away. [Kuiper died on 22 April 1966 – Ed.]. He was a man of high spirituality and impeccable orthodoxy. It is appropriate, therefore, that a brief mention should be made of the outline of his varied, scholarly and fruitful life.
R. B. Kuiper (his real Christian names, being Dutch, were seldom used and ‘R.B.’ was the customary mode of addressing him) was born on January 31, 1886 in the province of Groningen in the North of Holland. He was one of a family of eight children born to the Rev. and Mrs Dominie Klaas Kuiper. The father was a minister of the Reformed Church and a man of staunch orthodoxy. Young Kuiper spent only the first five years of his life in Holland. In 1891 he sailed for New York. Dominie Kuiper, now 50 years old, had served three Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. His future ministry was to be in the United States and young Kuiper grew up in the state of Michigan.
Kuiper took after his father in being gifted with a sharp intellect. He proved an excellent scholar at school and entered the University of Chicago in 1903. In 1908 he entered Theological School in Grand Rapids in order to prepare for the ministry of the Christian Reformed Church, at that time a denomination characterised by strong attachment to classical Calvinism. Here Kuiper proved a student of notable excellence. Intent on pursuing theological study he toyed with the idea of crossing to Scotland in order to study at the Free Church of Scotland College. Here he would have sat under Professors James Orr and James Denney. In the event, however, he opted to go to Princeton Seminary and here he became one of the distinguished students under B. B. Warfield and C. W. Hodge, Jnr. as well as of Geerhardus Vos. Warfield was at a later date to mention Kuiper’s intellectual talents to J. Gresham Machen at a critical time in the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.
In 1911 he married a lady of Dutch background, Marie Janssen, who proved to be a worthy helpmeet to him in the work of the gospel throughout his long and serviceable ministry. There is a warm human touch in the anecdote which informs us that when a little girl was born to the Kuipers, Dr and Mrs B. B. Warfield sent a gift to the newborn child, and along with it a note which read as follows: ‘Dr and Mrs Warfield present their compliments to little Miss Kuiper, and beg to congratulate her on being born, and to thank her for being born in Princeton. Will she kindly accept these little pins as a souvenir of her birthplace April 9, 1912:
Kuiper was ordained to the Christian ministry in 1912 and was soon recognised by the churches as an outstanding preacher. He served several congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in Michigan. Perhaps a little surprisingly, he left the denomination for a time to become minister of the Reformed Church in America in its congregation at Kalamazoo. That was in the year 1923. However, he returned in 1925 to the Christian Reformed Church. This was the period of the ‘common grace controversy’.
R. B. Kuiper was to be Principal of three colleges during his lifetime. In 1930 he was invited to be President of Calvin College in Grand Rapids. This position he held until 1933. Great changes were taking place, however, at Princeton and in the Presbyterian church in the United States in these momentous years. The outstanding theologian and leader of the period was Dr J. Gresham Machen who, along with other conservative colleagues, left the declining Princeton Seminary in order to set up a thoroughly Reformed institution which would continue the old Princeton tradition. Thus it was that in 1929 Westminster Theological Society came into being in Philadelphia, Pennysylvania. Machen called Kuiper to serve in the Chair of Systematic Theology in the new Westminster Seminary and Kuiper agreed to come for one year. Fifty students enrolled at the Westminster Seminary in the September of 1929. There was a faculty of outstanding scholars attached to the new Seminary from the start: Robert Dick Wilson, Machen himself and O. T. Allis. These men were to be joined soon after by Paul Woolley and John Murray. In 1933 Kuiper returned to Westminster in order to become Professor of Practical Theology.
The sudden and unexpected death of Machen in 1937 came as a great shock to the Reformed world of the day. The loss of Machen was also felt in the numbers of students enrolling in the new institution of Westminster. In 1937 there were 30 men in training. By 1946 the number had gone down to five and in 1949 it reached an all-time low with only three men in training. However, after that year the numbers steadily increased so that by 1984 the number had risen to 109.
As Professor of Practical Theology it fell to Kuiper to instruct the young preachers under his charge. It is typical of his attitude that he could advise the students as follows: ‘Preach so simply that a child can understand you, and then the chances are the older people will understand you too.’ This was no call to superficiality or carelessness but took account of the fatal tendency of young men to preach in an academic style and in a way which is above the heads, of ordinary church members. One piece of advice that R. B. Kuiper was apt to give to students is worth recalling here: ‘a sermon on an Old Testament text must be a New Testament sermon’. The preacher, he believed, must do justice in handling his text to history, doctrine and ethics. Only in this way is he preaching the full gospel. Many a student had to unlearn his previous bad preaching habits and habits of preparation. One student, new to the Seminary practice of careful study of a text beforehand, gave himself away on one occasion with these words, ‘These commentaries sure do help, don’t they?’ Clearly he had not been in the habit of using them in the past.
In 1936 a new church came into being with the name of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The circumstances which gave rise to the formation of this new church are well known. Compromise and liberal thought had greatly weakened the Northern Presbyterian Church. Kuiper’s attitude to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s formation was ‘they had to do it. It was their solemn duty.’ He could see no alternative to the setting up of the new church separate from the now compromised older Presbyterian denomination. Kuiper did not hesitate to join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This was the third denomination of which he was to be a minister.
Kuiper remained at Westminster Theological Seminary until 1952 when he left to return to Grand Rapids. Shortly after he left also the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in order to return once again to the Christian Reformed Church in which he had been reared. In that same year he was appointed by the C.R.C. to teach Practical Theology in the Calvin Seminary. He was further honoured by being installed as the President of that institution, a position he held until his retirement in 1956. R. B. Kuiper goes on to record as stating that a seminary professor must be both godly and learned. Both are essential to an efficient professor’s ministry as he prepares younger men for the work of the gospel ministry. It saddened Kuiper in his declining years to see his beloved church, the Christian Reformed Church, increasingly departing from the standards of classical Calvinism through the absorption of modern and more liberal thought.
Kuiper passed to his eternal rest in the early morning hours of April 22,1966. His daughter and son were at his side. He left a legacy of fine Christian books behind him. Some of these have been recently published by the Trust. The Bible Tells Us So was Kuiper’s last literary work and it was not completed, although the portion he did finish before his death is a worthy and helpful contribution. God-centered Evangelism appeared in 1961 and came out in a British edition in 1966. It is regarded as one of the most comprehensive and helpful works on all aspects of evangelism. However, it was Professor John Murray’s belief that Kuiper’s ‘masterpiece’ was his book The Glorious Body of Christ. All who have read that volume will know what a mine of practical thought it represents on all aspects of the Christian Church’s life and witness.
The biography of R. B. Kuiper, written by his son-in-law, Edward Heerema, was published in 1986 under the title R. B.: A Prophet in the Land1At the time of reposting, this title is in print with Inheritance Publications – Ed.. Kuiper’s life and ministry spans the critical period from orthodoxy at the beginning of this century, through the period of turmoil and theological decline in the ’20s and ’30s and up to the period of the Reformed reconstruction in America in the more recent years of this century. So eminent a servant of Christ must not be forgotten and we trust that the semi-jubilee of his death in April of this year will be suitably remembered by a fresh study of his biography and of his printed writings.
Featured Photo by Dan Gomer on Unsplash
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