The Power Of A Preface: Warfield On Kuyper

Books are a preacher’s whiskey--or so the saying goes. It doesn't take much to convince me that I need to add one more volume to my already full shelves. I remember, years ago, taking a doctoral seminar on Calvin with Sinclair Ferguson at Westminster Theological Seminary. At the end of a gloriously long day of lectures, I found myself in the old WTS bookstore. Dr. Ferguson made his way there, too. As if I was his padawan learner, he allowed me to follow him around and observe a seasoned master of book-perusal. He was quick and knowledgeable. We moved from shelf to shelf. Abruptly--as if my life depended on it--he stuck a book in my chest. 

“David, do you have this?”


“You must!”

A powerful sense of moral obligation came over me. Duty. Constraint. After all, it was Sinclair Ferguson!

What made it all the more poignant was that Ferguson (who wrote the standard seminary text on the Holy Spirit) was insisting that I not dare leave without the book that was, in his opinion, the standard--Abraham Kuyper’s The Work of the Holy Spirit.1

I hate to admit it, but it wasn’t until years later I discovered the double riches of that volume when I finally paid attention to the masterful preface by one, who had himself been mastered by its great and holy Subject.

B.B. Warfield, the Lion of Old Princeton, was the perfect person to provide a preface to the Dutchman’s pneumatological summa. In raising up Warfield and Kuyper, Jesus was placing His foot on both sides of the Atlantic and saying of these Reformed theologians, “Mine!”

To read Warfield is to read a theologian of the highest order. Even though this is a preface, and not a full treastise, there is an obvious skillfulness with which Warfield weaves his words. This is far from some cheap and watery treatment written for the consumption of the hurried; rather, it is a craft draft for those willing to slow down and savor the flavor. Warfield began the preface with an honorific introduction to the Kuyper who, he explained, really needed no introduction. The American audience already had the privilege of familiarity with Kuyper through the Dutch theologian’s Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, and his Lectures on Calvinism. Those lectures had been hosted by Warfield’s own Princeton Theological Seminary in the autumn of 1898.  He wanted his readers to receive Kuyper as, "one of our own prophets to whose message we have a certain right, and a new book from whose hands we welcome as we would a new gift from our near friend charges in a sense with care for our welfare.”2

It becomes clear, as you read through this preface, that Kuyper had written on a grand theme near and dear to the heart of the Lion of Old Princeton. Warfield was thankful for Kuyper’s volume, in part, because he regreted the relative paucity of monogrpahs, treatises, and studies that had been written on the work of the Holy Spirit in the broader theological world. This is not to say that there weren’t many things written or available in Warfield’s day on the various aspects of the work of the Spirit. There were ample studies on the Spirit's work in regeneration, justification, sanctification, anointing, intercession, sealing, etc. In fact, Warfield defended the Westminster Confession of Faith as providing one of the most robust treatments of the Holy Spirit--though it did not contain a single chapter dedicated to the Third Person of the Godhead. Warfield admired the way in which the WCF gave us nine chapters dealing with the ordo salutis. While he loved the WCF, Warfield longed for a full-orbed, systematic treatment of the work of the Holy Spirit. Even though Kuyper offered little that was groundbreaking, he offered what Warfield described as being, “the only work of its kind since Owen.”3

Warfield takes the reader on what feels like a rigorous raft ride down the rapids of a Reformed river, showing the elephantine Kuyper standing on the shoulders of theological giants who went before him--men like Owen, Goodwin, Charnock, Buchanan, and Smeaton. Surveying the French, Dutch, and German theologians, Warfield laments the lack of thorough exposition on the work of the Spirit. The only thing that came close to Kuyper was K.A. Kahnis’ on Die Lehre vom heiligen Geiste.  Yet, in Warfield's evaluation and to his frustration, even that never reached its potential. Here, one begins to marvel at Warfield’s staggering command of the literature across languages and theological traditions. 

Perhaps, the most instructive element of Warfield’s preface is his historical-theological accounting for the unique way in which the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit has its most proper seat within the Reformation and Post-Reformation theological tradition.  He goes so far as to say, “Stated in its sharpest form this is as much as to say that the developed doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit is an exclusively Reformation doctrine, and more particularly a Reformed doctrine, and more particularly still a Puritan doctrine."4

Is Warfield waxing hyperbolic?  Absolutely. Does he make his point? Absolutely!

Warfield, that great exegete, that great systematician, is an Historical Theologian when he says, “The doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit is a gift from John Calvin to the Church of Christ."5 In his wonderful little essay, John Calvin the Theologian, Warfield, discussing the Geneva Reformer’s soteriological program in the Institutes--uttering his oft-quoted assessment, “Its effect, at all events, has been to constitute Calvin pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”6

Again, does Warfield wax hyperbolic?  Absolutely.  Does he make his point?  Absolutely!

In short, Warfield's burden is to show that, while we see Augustine, Luther, and Zwingli laying hold of the work of the Holy Spirit here and there in their writings, Kuyper is indebted to Calvin, who first gave us--not only a systemic treatment of the offices of Christ and Christian ethics, but also the first significant formulation of the work of the Holy Spirit. In turn, this provided his heirs, both Puritan and Dutch Nadere Reformatie, the foundation for further doctrinal crystallization.

Warfield did not disparage the Early Church labors on this matter; rather, he showed how--apart from their attention to the first matters of the canon, the Trinity (which did address the person of the Spirit, if not his work), the hypostatic union (i.e. Christology), hamartology (i.e. the doctrine of sin), and the atonement--the Reformers might not have turned their attention to the implications of salvation to the extent and with the care in which they did. In other words, before we could have Calvin and Kuyper, we needed Athanasius, Augustine, and Anselm. Only then could the “fullness of times”7 come, in which the Reformers turned their attention to the Person and work of Spirit.

Together with Warfield, we have reason to rejoice that the harvest of the Netherland's fields is ours: “Only a spiritually minded Church provides a soil in which a literature of the Spirit can grow.”8 God has given us works like this for our spiritual growth in grace. Reading Kuyper's masterpiece on the Holy Spirit will prove to be one of the best things you do for your own mind and heart. The same is true of reading Warfield's Preface to this work!



1. Interestingly, James Bratt’s new biography of Kuyper indicates that his massive treatment on the work of the Spirit, provides, in ways, an answer for Robert Pearsal and Hannah Whitall Smith’s brand of higher life, into which Kuyper took brief foray.  See, James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 87-108.

2. B.B. Warfield, “Introductory Note,” in Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Rev. Henri De Vries (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1995), xxvi.

3. Ibid., xxvii.

4. Ibid., xxxiii.

5. Ibid., xxxiv.

6. B.B. Warfield, “John Calvin the Theologian,” in Calvin and Augustine, (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company,1956; rpt. 1974), 484.

7. Warfield, “Introductory Note,” xxxvii.

8. Ibid., xxxix.


David Filson