Going Dutch in the Modern Age

Article by   April 2014

John Halsey Wood, Jr. Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper's Struggle for a Free Church in the Nineteenth-Century Netherlands. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, x + 235pp. $74.00

In 1848, the Dutch constitution separated the church from the state. In 1886, a disillusioned but determined Abraham Kuyper, armed with theology, locksmiths and lawyers, was suspended from the ministry of the Netherlands Reformed Church and led a secession out of it. In 1892, the secessionists' churches joined the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands, which had seceded in 1834. Within less than a decade of the union, Kuyper, founder of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, would become Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Against the ecclesiastical background of his life and times, John Halsey Wood has written a volume examining Abraham Kuyper's ecclesiology, a key concern which lay behind and drove his thought as a whole.

Wood describes dilemmas, tensions and evolution in Kuyper's ecclesiology over the years. As a young pastor, with little time, initially, for the institutional church, he came to appreciate the institution. As he matured and changed, so did his ecclesiology, running its incarnational and sacramental course to its conclusion in a form of believers' church. What had to be adjusted and readjusted as he and his circumstances developed was the connection between the church as organism and the church as institution. Here, Kuyper began to strike out in a fresh ecclesiological direction and came to conceive of the church as a visible organism, a concept which integrated the organic and the institutional. This novelty found published expression in the 1883 Tract on the Reformation of the Churches. If the essence of the church is its organic reality, it is not invisible: a gathering 'possesses the essence of the church' and the gathering of believers 'is a manifestation of the essence of the church...This visible gathering of the essence of the church is the same as the visible organism' (p. 88). Institution does not belong to essence, but the church nevertheless requires an institutional dimension, so the institution is 'necessary but contingent' or 'necessary but not essential to the church' (p. 89). That is not the end of the theological story. The move from a sacramental to a believers' church ecclesiology and departure from the national (albeit disestablished) church forced Kuyper to think through the question of the church as a voluntary organization and this involved rethinking the nature of baptism. Eventually, Kuyper, as a Reformed paedobapist, concluded in favour of the presumptive regeneration of infants.

After showing the connection between these theological moves and his particular changing circumstances, Wood proceeds to widen out the account and track the relation of ecclesiological development to Kuyper the revolutionary and Kuyper the public theologian. If anyone seemed set against the French Revolution, it was brother Abraham, yet there were those who accused him of separating church and nation, ascribing ecclesiastical and social power to the people in a way that conceded dangerous ground to the philosophy of R/revolution. In particular, Kuyper was breaking with Calvinism in theologically permitting a plurality of churches. However, Kuyper knew that the times were new and was convinced that he was consistently applying the Calvinist principles pertaining to freedom of conscience and church-state relationships to the dramatically changed social and political circumstances of his own day. This requires not the least compromise on the principle of the universal lordship of Jesus Christ or public-theological concern of the churches over the whole area of human endeavour; it just means that the claims of Christ must be heard and heeded without either state or church assuming social power over all the spheres of life.

This is a good, scholarly, instructive volume, equally a pleasure and an edification to read. Kuyper's thought is plausibly described; the relative attention given to the various contexts of his work - immediate (national); deep (Dutch-historical) and broad (nineteenth-century European) - is proportionate to the author's concerns. The secondary literature is admirably treated, whether in account, agreement or demurral. The concluding chapter not only shows very clearly how ecclesiology and the public theology for which Kuyper is so well-known outside the Netherlands are integrated, but also rightly states that his thinking about 'common grace' and 'antithesis' was integrated. 'The purpose of common grace was not to moderate the antithesis. The antithesis and common grace depended on each other. Kuyper would not have needed a theology of common grace if he had not had a theology of the antithesis' (p. 163). This chapter is a satisfying conclusion to a satisfying volume whose occasional repetitiveness scarcely detracts from the quality of the whole.

Aside from the question of whether Wood accurately depicts the development of Kuyper's thought against its historical background - and he argues his case well - it seems to me that the principal question which arises is whether Wood too readily assumes that tensions in ecclesiology which arose on account of historical circumstance and in Kuyper's own thinking are theologically intrinsic in ecclesiology. Take the question of baptism as the author sets it up at the beginning of the fifth chapter (pp. 114-17). Supposing I hold that infants are members of the covenant community of the church and that baptism is the mode of initiation into that community; ergo, infants are the proper subjects of baptism. I raise them to love and follow the Lord their God in their increasingly independent lives. Then I shall detect not even prima facie conflict between paedobaptism and 'active personal spirituality' or necessary connection between paedobaptism and national solidarity. Indeed, I shall see no difficulty in thinking of the church as a voluntary gathering in an appropriate sense when pitted against an objective institutional, national church. It is true that infants are not voluntarily inside the church, but they are not voluntarily outside it either - infants are not voluntarily anything. So when Wood talks of Kuyper's 'socio-theological dilemma' in this connection, we should either say that the dilemma is more social than theological or we should say that it is theological within Kuyper's terms of reference but not 'intrinsically' theological. I should apply this consideration to the way in which theological tensions in ecclesiology are viewed throughout this volume, at least since the introduction of Troeltsch in the first chapter.

In fact, is it the excessive influence of Troeltsch's 'church-sect' distinction that is responsible for  the way Wood sets things up? Wood is careful in his handling of Troeltsch and particularly careful not to endorse the typology as Troeltsch advances it. Nevertheless, he contends that it is fruitful for exploring Kuyper. In principle, that is fair enough. However, I wonder if Troeltsch exerts too much influence - or the wrong kind of influence - in practice. Troeltsch's position is described like this: the objective institutional character of the church, which is its essence, means that '[o]ne is born and baptized into the church apart from any voluntary decision, and in that respect is has a compulsory character and requires relatively little by way of inward commitment or holiness' (p. 31). Our first thought should be to reject completely the theological, whatever may be said about the historical, connection between the non-voluntary nature of infant membership of the church and the paucity of spiritual requirement. Actually, in the second volume of The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Troeltsch himself admitted that historical Calvinism broke down the church-sect distinction with the attendant polarities which he had described. It seems to me that, had Wood given more attention to this and pressed the question of whether Troeltsch credits Calvinism with sufficient coherence on this point, he might have re-described the theological dimension of the ecclesiological tensions which Kuyper experienced. I raise this as a question; the author may have a ready answer.

Finally, one must register disappointment at the editorial standards of the Oxford University Press. We have 'aid' for 'aide', 'shear' for 'sheer', 'principle' for 'principal', 'Apostle's' for 'Apostles' ' along with 'minutia', 'indispensible' and 'plurformity'. Troeltsch appears far more often in the text than he does in the index; less significant, but still significant, figures like Bonhoeffer and Stephen Sykes do not even make it into the index. In light of the preceding sentences, I presume that the first sentence of the second paragraph on p. 70 should read: 'Christians' relationship to Christ was dependent on their relationship to the church, according to Kuyper', although perhaps what the sentence needs is clarification rather than reformulation. Overall, this is a pity; this book and this author deserve better.

Stephen N Williams is Professor of Systematic Theology and church history at Union Theological College in Belfast.

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