This post is part of a series walking through the third volume of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace
One of the theological developments historically is over the question of how to tell a “true” church from a “false.” As there have been more churches, how to tell as true church from a false one has changed even more. At times, this has meant conflict between conscience and the law. Martyrdom and persecution was the result all around. This because at the time (roughly during the Reformation) the only model known was the old Roman Catholic approach–pluralism wasn’t thought of yet. But if not Rome (and not Rome), then what? This is where agreement breaks down and the Anabaptist model briefly reigned, leading to social disorder. A positive confession to counter Rome was needed–albeit one apart from the state (so something other than the model Luther used).
Yet, the Confessional approach was still just one model. The more libertine Anabaptists led Calvin to ally with Roman Catholicism on moral issues, and the Anabaptists forced him to see the Roman Catholic Church as a “true” (albeit weakened/compromised) church in the name of defending the legitimacy of infant baptism. So now there were two churches, the Confessional Reformed one and the Roman Catholic Church–but also there were Lutheran Churches and other nationals Churches, and that increasingly meant everyone was aware that there was no real chance of international unity.
So now ew live in a world of nuance, not absolute true/false division. [Though Kuyper is unclear on whether this nuance is just between Protestants, or if Catholics are included in this nuance). Claims that one church should take over the state are thoughtless at best, and ignorant of this nuance.
We must live in a real, relative, world. But this immediately leads to the question of whether this undermines our trust in our local church as a “true church.” Obviously none of them are perfect (which was never the claim anyway). But what we can do is ask:
1) does my church stand out as a Church of Christ from other associations?
2) how does it compare to other churches?
This latter needs to be an overall comparison as any church will be better or worse on some points. Obviously most Christians don’t consider these things:
“We are not claiming that every member will go through this process. This is not how things operate in life. By far, most people love their church because they have been born into it, baptized in it, and raised in it, and for these reasons they do not give it any further thought. Rather, we only wish to maintain that the person who is given to thoughtful study, who is willing to investigate the matter with a measure of philosophical and theological integrity, will arrive through this reflective process at a reasonable determination of the character of his own church.” (314-315)
So God’s truth is absolute, but as fallen/limited beings our access to that truth struggles, even as our “relative appropriation” of the truth still gives us certainty. (315)
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO