Abraham Kuyper – His Life and Legacy Part Three: Answering Critisms of his Worldview (1)

INTRODUCTION

Now that we have provided a summary of some of the more distinctive features of Kuyper’s worldview, a few common criticisms of Kuyper’s position need to be considered. Not only during his lifetime, but also in terms of his influence within the Reformed community subsequent to his death, Kuyper has been a controversial figure. Reactions to his views range from uncritical praise and loyalty to vigorous and general dissent. To some, Kuyper is a heroic figure whose legacy is an unmixed blessing. To others, Kuyper is an ignoble figure whose legacy is a source of unhappy controversy and compromise among the Reformed churches. To still others, Kuyper is a mixed blessing whose legacy is neither wholly beneficial nor detrimental to the challenges facing the Christian community today.

In my consideration of these common criticisms of Kuyper’s worldview, I will not attempt to identify all of Kuyper’s critics or give a complete statement oftheir arguments. Nor will I attempt to provide a complete response to their criticisms of his position. To do so would risk needlessly extending this series of articles on Kuyper’s life and legacy. Rather, I will only provide a kind of broad-stroked description of these criticisms together with some preliminary observations regarding their merits or demerits. The fact that I have entitled this part of my consideration of Kuyper’s life and legacy, “answering criticisms of his worldview,” should be enough to indicate that my sympathies lie finally more with Kuyper than with his critics.

CRITICISMS OF KUYPER’S DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH

In our earlier consideration of Kuyper’s doctrine of the church, I noted that this doctrine has beenamong the most strongly criticized areas of Kuyper’s thought. On each of the key elements of Kuyper’s doctrine—the church’s freedom, the distinction between the church as institute and as organism, and the “pluriformity” of the church—critics of Kuyper have raised serious objections. In order to address these criticisms, I will phrase them in the form of questions and then evaluate their validity.

Was Kuyper a congregationalist?

One of the distinctive features of Kuyper’s doctrine of the church was his vigorous opposition to every illegitimate abuse of church authority, particularly on the part of the “broader” assemblies of the church. In Kuyper’s understanding of authority and its exercise in the churches of Jesus Christ, a clear demarcation needs to be made between the authority of the state and of the church. The church stands alongside the state as an institution of God with a particular task and calling. The state, therefore, has no right to interfere directly in the affairs of the church or attempt to govern its activities. Within the circle of the church itself, Kuyper was equally insistent upon the relative autonomy of each local church under the authority of Christ, as this authority is exercised through the office-bearers. The only universal bishop of Christ's church on earth is Christ Himself. All other officebearers owe their calling and authority to Christ Himself, who calls them to their respective offices within the local congregation and directly grants them the responsibility to oversee the congregation’s life and worship.

In Kuyper’s doctrine of the church, therefore, the authority exercised by the broader assemblies (classis and synod) is a delegated authority. Whereas the authority of the local church council is original, the authority of the broader assemblies is delegated to them and is to be exercised according to the requirements and limitations spelled out in the church order to which the churches commonly consent. The authority of broader assemblies must be carefully bounded so that the original authority of the local church council is not compromised. For Kuyper, this understanding of the original authority of the local church councils was enshrined in the confessions of the Reformation and the original church order of the Dutch Reformed churches. It also constituted a necessary hedge against the tendency of the church assemblies (and their officers) to exceed their legitimate authority. The only way to preserve the blessing of Christ’s rule in His churches over against the tyranny of church hierarchy and unrestrained exercise of authority is to guard carefully the direct rule of Christ over the local congregation.

Now, it has been alleged that this view of the freedom of the local churches from church hierarchy represents a departure from the historic Reformed view of the connection between the local churches through the broader assemblies of classis and synod. According to this criticism, Kuyper’s stress upon the relative autonomy of the local churches can only lead to a spirit of independentism and congregationalism. The weight of gravity in Kuyper’s view of the church shifts inordinately to the local church, so that the mutual responsibility and answerability of the churches to one another is seriously compromised. Kuyper’s doctrine of the church does not do justice, then, to the unity and the catholicity of the church, since it permits the local churches under Christ to exercise an authority that is unrestrained by the principles of the connection and interelationship of the churches as members of the one church of Christ.

Undoubtedly, a full answer to this objection I would require a study of the history of the Reformed churches and their form of church government, including the provisions of the church orders that have been used by them. In my judgment however, Kuyper’s understanding represents a proper adherence to the historic Reformed principle that Christ directly rules over the churches through their officebearers. Kuyper’s view is neither congregationalist, where the original authority resides in the congregation’s members, nor hierarchicalist, where the original authority resides in the broader assemblies and their officers.

Though Kuyper did not concede any original authority to the broader assemblies, he did acknowledge their authority, as delegated and acknowledged by the churches in common, to be a real authority which obligates the churches to be accountable and responsible to each other. What Kuyper opposed was the idea that the broader assemblies could impose their will upon the local churches and councils beyond the limits set forth in the church order, or irrespective of their adherence to the Scriptures and the confessions. For Kuyper, should a broader assembly abuse its authority by contravening the teaching of the Scriptures or the confessions, or by exceeding the boundaries of its delegated authority as stipulated in the church order, the local church council was not obligated simply to submit to its decisions. Every church remains free under Christ to be subject to His Word alone. Furthermore, should churches join together in a communion of churches (denomination or federation), they should do so on the basis of a commonly held confession and acknowledged church order. Where no such common confession or practice of church government exists there would be no legitimate basis for the kind of interrelationship among the churches that properly expresses the unity of the church.

In these emphases, Kuyper did not err or stray from the line of the Reformation. In my judgment, he might better be regarded as a true champion of biblical principles of church polity that require continued emphasis among the Reformed churches today.

Did Kuyper belittle the “institutional” church?

Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institute and as organism has often been regarded as slighting or belittling the centrality of the institutional church. Because Kuyper stressed the importance of the believer’s calling as a member of the church as organism. it has been argued that he laid the basis fora limited view of the importance of the church as institute. In support ofthis criticism, some have argued that among “neo-Calvinist” followers of Kuyper the institutional church is viewed as largely subordinate and inferior to the church as organism.

As we noted in our summary of his doctrine of the church, Kuyper sought by this distinction to emphasize the calling of Christian believers beyond the boundaries of the institutional church. However important and central may be the ministry of the church as institute, the calling of Christian believers is more comprehensive and life-embracing than their calling as members of a local congregation. In marriage, family, education, business, politics and the like, Christian believers, who do not cease in these areas to be members of Christ and partakers of His anointing, are called to offer themselves as living sacrifices in thankful obedience to Christ. They do not live or fulfill their calling in these spheres under the direct and immediate authority of the institutional church. Though the gospel of the kingdom which the church is called to minister speaks to all of life, it would be an inappropriate overstepping of boundaries on the part of the church as institute to enter directly into these areas of life.

Thus, Kuyper never intended this distinction to belittle the importance of the institutional church. Rather, it was intended by Kuyper to maintain the church’s focus upon the administration of the keys of the kingdom on the one hand, and to encourage Christian believers to take their confession of Christ’s lordship into the marketplace of life on the other hand. When the church, for example presumes to have expertise and authority to directly intervene in the affairs of the state, the particular calling of the church to preach the gospel and to nurture her members in the faith is inevitably neglected. The church then becomes a kind of “political force” and the authenticity of the gospel is compromised by its identification with a particular political party, cause or figure. Alternatively, when believers who are members of the church are encouraged to view their calling as Christians as restricted to their activity as members of the institutional church, the legitimate labor of Christ’s members in a variety of areas of life is called into question. In both of these respects, Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institute and as organism is useful, even necessary.

However, perhaps to avoid misunderstanding, it would be preferable to use different language than that used by Kuyper to make this distinction. It has been suggested, for example, that it might be better to restrict the term “church” to its common use in the Bible. In the Scriptures, the most common use for the term “church” is as a reference to the local congregation of Christ’s people. This congregation or church is under the care of Christ Himself, supervised by those officebearers (ministers, elders, deacons) whom He charges with a distinct calling, and who are responsible to administer the means of grace. This is what the Scriptures most commonly mean when they speak of the “church.” It is what Kuyper meant to refer to when he spoke of the church as “institute.”

When he spoke of the church as “organism,” Kuyper meant to refer to the broader and more comprehensive calling of those who, as members of Christ’s church, are also citizens of the kingdom of God. As citizens of the kingdom of God, believers have a calling in every area of life to serve and honor their King. Believers are to seek the honor of Christ not only in the church but also in all of the areas of life claimed by Christ. Rather than speaking of the church as organism, then, it would be better to speak of the institutional church and the kingdom of God. Though the institutional church plays a foundational role by administering the gospel of the kingdom, those who are members of the church are called as citizens of the kingdom to serve Christ in every area of His dominion. The distinction which Kuyper describes between the church as institute and the church as organism might just as well be expressed as a distinction between the instituted church on the one hand, as the central instrument of the kingdom, and the many facets of kingdom life on the other hand.

Should the “pluriformity” of the church be encouraged?

On more than one occasion in our survey of Kuyper’s worldview, I mentioned that Kuyper had an aversion to the uniformity of modern life with its “blurring of the boundaries” between differing kinds of creaturely institutions, spheres of life, and the like, Kuyper was a life-long opponent of the tendency of modern thought toward monism, the worldview that failed to distinguish properly between the Triune God and the creation, and between the diversity of kinds of creatures which God has created. The bland uniformity and commonness of modern life in its architecture, dress, music, business, politics, education was something Kuyper viewed with grave suspicion. Nothing was more repugnant to Kuyper in politics and in the church, for example, than a kind of forced and artificial unity or oneness.

Something of this emphasis upon diversity came to expression in Kuyper’s rather expansive doctrine of the “pluriformity” of the church. Appealing to the diversity of creation, the variety of circumstances within God’s providence, and the limitations of human knowledge and understanding, Kuyper articulated a doctrine of church pluriformity that approved the diversity of churches and denominations. Rather than being regarded as a sinful deflection from the biblical standard of unity among the churches, Kuyper regarded the diversity and pluriformity of the churches to be a kind of necessary, even inevitable expression of such factors as the diversity of creation and the variety of God’s providence. That the churches are pluriform in confession, in church order, in practice, and in so many other ways, is not something to be viewed with dismay or regret, but with benign approval.

Though there are elements of Kuyper's doctrine of the pluriformity of the church that have a measure of validity, in the main Kuyper’s doctrine represents an illegitimate approval of the church’s sinful diversity or pluriformity. While it is one thing to emphasize the catholicity of the church and to resist the sectarian temptation to restrict the true church only to the purest churches Kuyper’s recognition of the church’s pluriformity does achieve these ends—it is quite another thing to endorse the actual pluriformity of the church in the way Kuyper does. By appealing to the motifs of creational diversity, providential circumstances, and the limitations upon any church’s grasp of the wholeness of truth, Kuyper grants to the existing (de facto) diversity of the church a kind of normalcy (de iure). However, the actual pluriformity of the church is more often the product of sinful departure from the standards of God’s Word than it is the benign result of the inevitable diversity of human life and organization.

As a result, Kuyper’s doctrine of the church’s pluriformity glosses over as rather insignificant, the real differences of confession and practice that obtain between those churches that claim to be true churches of Jesus Christ. Rather than encouraging a biblical practice of ecumenicity, based upon efforts to reach a true unity of confession and practice among the churches, Kuyper’s doctrine tends to lend tacit approval to the existence of a multiplicity of different churches with widely varying confessions and practices. It grants normative standing to an actual state of affairs with which believers ought not to be at peace, namely, the sadly divided and fragmented character of the church of Jesus Christ in our day.

Were Kuyper only to have insisted that the church is catholic, comprising a great number of churches, some more pure, some less pure, he would have been on surer ground. Likewise, were he only to have maintained that denominational or federative union among the churches requires genuine unity of confession and practice, not an artificial appearance of unity through organizational igconformity, his view could be defended. However, Kuyper meant much more than this in his defense of the pluriformity of the church. To the extent that his doctrine went beyond legitimate emphases such as these, it does not measure up to the Scriptural norm for the unity of the church of Jesus Christ.

SPHERE SOVEREIGNTY OR SPHERE RESPONSIBILITY?

One of the most distinctive and provocative elements of Kuyper’s worldview was his articulation of the principle of “sphere-sovereignty.” According to Kuyper, the various spheres of life within God’s creation stand under the universal sovereignty of God. God’s sovereign authority is administered through a diversity of human instruments and created institutions, each of which has its own peculiar task and authority under God.

Thus, in the development of his political theory. Kuyper insisted that the state is directly instituted of God, granted the authority and power of the sword, to provide for a just ordering of society and the preservation of peace. The state’s authority is not under that of church, nor is the authority of the church under that of the state. Each is “sovereign in its own sphere,” but subject to the direct sovereignty of God who instituted the state and the church for distinct callings and tasks. Similarly, the other spheres of life—marriage, family, school. business. economics, art—have been instituted by God and given a specific mandate or task. 

When Kuyper used the language of “sovereignty” in this understanding of the diversity of life spheres, it was not his purpose to suggest that these areas of life are autonomous or a law unto themselves. On the contrary: it was his purpose to stress their accountability and responsibility to God who called them into existence for a particular task or service within His kingdom. Nor was it Kuyper’s intention to suggest that these various spheres of life are to exist in a kind of isolation the one from the other, without any kind of mutual interaction or accountability. Kuyper acknowledged a kind of sphere universality in which each of the various life spheres was accountable or responsible to the other, so far as its peculiar task was concerned. The state, for example, has a responsibility not only to protect the freedom of the church to fulfill her calling, but also to require that the church contribute to the legitimate ordering of human life. If a church building were to flaunt local fire codes or engage directly in political activities, then the state would be obligated in order to fulfill its divine mandate, to insist upon compliance with those laws that serve the interests of public safety or the distinct calling of the church. The sovreignty of these life spheres only underscored their freedom from interference on the part of other spheres in their internal affairs and responsibilities.

One criticism that has often been registered against Kuyper’s principle of sphere sovereignty is that it too sharply separates between the various life spheres. By speaking of sphere sovereignty, Kuyper lent support to a view of the relation between the spheres of life that is radically pluralistic. The responsibility of the various spheres of life to each other is either minimized or rejected altogether. As a result, the different spheres of life become a kind of “law unto themselves,” immune from criticism or responsibility to other legitimate authorities. Sphere-sovereignty gives rise, accordingly, to a kind of vision for life that isolates the various spheres of life from each other. Mutual accountability is denied between these spheres of life and high walls are erected between them.

One of the areas where this criticism is most often heard relates to the matter of Christian education and Christian schools. If the Christian school, for example, is a sovereign sphere, neither an organ of the church (non-parochial) nor an extension of the home, then it is no longer accountable in any meaningful way to the authority of the church or of the home. Furthermore, because the calling of the Christian school is quite specific, the constitution that governs its affairs can be neither the confessions of the church nor the aspirations of the parents of the children. The school's constitution is an educational creed. not a church creed. When parents entrust their children to the instruction of teachers in such a school, the expertise and calling of the teachers is such that parents are not to interfere directly in the areas of the school’s or the teachers competence.

For those who express this criticism of Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere-sovereignty the common complaint is that the Christian schools and their teachers are encouraged to ignore the concerns of the church that instruction in the Christian school be distinctively Reformed, for example, in accord with the creeds of the church—and to treat the concerns of parents as a kind of illegitimate intrusion into the affairs of the school. As a result, Kuyper’s view of sphere sovereignty has the practical effect of throwing up barriers between the church and home on the one hand, and the Christian school on the other hand. To use colloquial language, the Christian school is able to “thumb its nose” at the church and home when they express directly their disapproval regarding the policies and practices of the school.

This is a potent criticism of Kuyper’s principle of sphere sovereignty, and it certainly should be admitted that in some cases this principle has been used to isolate the various spheres of life from each other. There are no doubt instances where some Christian school administrators and teachers have sought refuge in the principle of sphere sovereignty so as to avoid their accountability to the church and the home. The critical question, however, is whether this kind of practice represents a genuine application of Kuyper’s principle.

I would argue that it does not, but rather it represents a serious corruption of Kuyper’s position. When Kuyper spoke of sphere sovereignty, it was not his purpose to isolate these spheres from each other or refuse any legitimate accountability on the part of one life sphere to another. Certainly, it was not his position that the church’s creed have no authority over the instruction that takes place in a Christian school, least of all a Christian school established by an association of parents who subscribe to such creeds. Nor was it his position that, when parents through an association establish a Christian school, they cease to exercise authority over the functioning of the school. Kuyper was well aware of and advocated the principle of what is called in loco parentis, that is, that the Christian school teacher serves “in the place of the parents” as one entrusted with a specific responsibility to teach in accord with the convictions of the parents. He was also keenly aware of the fact that the Reformed confessions must give direction and shape to the formation of a Reformed, Christian school.

Kuyper emphasized the principle of sphere sovereignty in order to maintain that the church, the home and the school, have distinctive tasks under God to whom they are ultimately accountable. The church is not the home, nor is the home the school. Each is different and has its own calling within the kingdom of God. Each is finally responsible to God and, for that reason, to the other so far as their respective callings are concerned. For this reason, Kuyper’s principle of sphere sovereignty might better be termed a principle of sphere responsibility. Though relatively free from inappropriate interference by other spheres, each legitimate sphere of human life is directly responsible to God for its calling and authority. Once it is recognized that Kuyper’s primary emphasis lies upon each sphere’s accountability to God, it should become clear that Kuyper's purpose was not to grant to any sphere of life a kind of radical independence or freedom from responsibility to other legitimate, God-ordained authorities.

(To be continued)

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.

 

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