Kuyper: How Vital The Church?

Kuyper: How Vital The Church? February 13, 2018

What unnerves many Anabaptists about the Kuyperians is the locating of the church — the Body of Christ, universal or local or both — in a sphere no different than Economics or Education. In other words, the church gets diminished from the center of God’s mission in the world to flank other spheres in the world.

So, when Craig Bartholomew coms to his chapter on Kuyper’s theory of the church, I get interested. And I do not because I have anabaptist leanings, which I do, but because as an Anglican (in the USA, where there is no such thing as a state church) I believe in the church. And because many today are devaluing the church for the sake of political activism or privatization of religion. We are looking at Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition.

Early on Kuyper longed for a purer version of the church. That is, he echoes the anabaptist theory of a more radical reformation. No need to push the button here, Kuyper was never part of the radical reformation. He was coming out of a more liberal (Schleiermacher) approach into a more orthodox approach.

In his “Confidentially” Kuyper … From then on I have longed with all my soul for a sanctified Church wherein my soul and those of my loved ones can enjoy the quite refreshment of peace, far from all confusion, under its firm, lasting, and authoritative guidance.

An image Bartholomew develops is that for Kuyper the church is our Mother.

In his inaugural in the church in Amsterdam, Kuyper returns to this theme cf the church as our mother: “‘She is a mother’—to use Calvin’s beautiful expression—whose womb not only carried us, whose breast not only nursed us, but whose tender care leads us to the goal of faith. … Those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be Mother, and apart from her motherly care no one grows
 to maturity.’ The church is our mother!”

Important section in this chp. Kuyper’s ecclesiology develops over time and here are the three phases he develops.

James Bratt identifies three phases in Kuyper’s evolving theology of the church. [I now reformat.]

(1) From his graduate studies at Leiden until his pastorate in Amsterdam, Kuyper developed a theology of the church, moving from an emphasis on inner spirituality to an assertion of the fixed forms of Calvinism.

(2) From 1875 through to the Doleantie [an attempted formation of a reformation of the church, a new denomination in the Netherlands] he emphasized soteriology over ecclesiology and focused on church law in particular.

(3) In the third phase he concentrated on Calvinism and on culture rather than church. As a theologian Kuyper began with the church and concluded with culture, with Calvinism as the glue connecting the two.

One must not forget that Kuyper’s ecclesiology stands within his broader theology, one that was strongly trinitarian and God-centered, focused on redemption in Christ, emphasized personal and cosmic renewal or palingenesis, and celebrated the kingship of Christ.

That first phase was more low church, more focused on local church autonomy, which he never gave up, but more personal and private and less external, structural and institutional. But he grew out of this into an embrace of both the church as organism and institution, with both needed for the church to be what it can be in a modern society. His theology moved toward seeing the church as a catalyst for change in society, culture, state.

He eventually embraces much of what we would call institutional features of the church: calendar, liturgy, and he struggled with one-man ministry, he wanted personal experiential religion and he liked church architectural aesthetics.

But the church is mission: the church is called to influence and shape society. And this has become a major element of the Kuyperian theory of the church, and sphere sovereignty here is one again affirmed.

For both, the institutional church is indispensable as a sphere within society and as the place where we encounter God in Christ and hear his Word.

At the same time, through their masterful articulation of church as organism and institution, they articulate a vision of the church as truly catholic in the sense of influencing all of life.

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