by Michael R. Wagenman
Who Was Abraham Kuyper?
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) may not be well known to you but his theology has had a massive influence globally in the century since his death. An international network of scholars, institutions, civic organizations, and Christian denominations are all indebted to his thought. Christians and non-Christians alike recognize his importance for theology, history, culture, and society.
The American theologian B. B. Warfield, president of Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887-1902, referred to Kuyper as a “theologian of genius.” He was a pastor, theologian, journalist, politician, cultural critic, and politician. And he served in all these capacities just as the Netherlands was undergoing its massive shift from a Christian to a secular society. But it was Kuyper’s theological vision that animated all of his work and thought.
Kuyper wasn’t only interested in theory, though. He was also an institution-builder. He founded the Free University of Amsterdam, two national Dutch newspapers, a political party, a labour union, a denomination, and also served as the Dutch prime minister from 1901-1905.
But it was the institutional church that Kuyper was concerned about throughout his life. In fact, Kuyper was convinced that the problem of relating the church to modern society was “none other than the problem of Christianity itself.” Kuyper was concerned that in the midst of cultural and societal change, the church would become marginalized and the cause of Christ would become stuck in a religious ghetto. At the core of Kuyper’s vision is the question of how Christian faith can still be missionally engaged in a changing and diverse world. That’s the same question we are still dealing with today. And Kuyper is as relevant as ever.
Kuyper is often credited with translating Protestant/Reformed/Calvinist theology into the modern world of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Holland. Through his many publications and public addresses, he launched a unique theological tradition within mainstream Protestantism which is marked as a unique form of Christian faith committed to a comprehensive world-engagement. As Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolsterstorff has said, “at the heart of the [Kuyperian] tradition is a passion for totality, for wholeness, for integrity, for not allowing life to fall into bits and pieces, for constantly asking, ‘What does my faith – what does the gospel of Jesus Christ – have to do with this and what does it have to do with that? and then never being content with the answer, ‘Nothing!’ … the heart of the tradition is not theology but a certain, difficult-to-describe, way of being in the world before God, in which the notion of totality and wholeness is central.” This world-engaging vision of Christian faith and life has been instrumental in shifting the posture of the church towards culture and society.
Another Christian scholar, Peter Heslam, has argued that Kuyper’s theology is missional at its core: “For Kuyper, Calvinism represented a kind of centrifugal force that moved outwards in ever-widening circles – from its initial influence in the sphere of religion – to encompass the whole of human existence.”
Kuyper’s View of the Church and Society
It is precisely Kuyper’s view of the church that provides us with a glimpse of this comprehensive vision of life in Christ. Kuyper understood the church to be both an institution within society and a movement of people (and organizations) within culture. He referred to this as the church being both an institution and an organism. Or, in today’s language, we would say the church is both Christians gathered for worship and sent into the world as witnessing disciples. It is this nuanced understanding of the church that allows Kuyper to unlock not only the church’s worldwide missional potential but also each Christian’s dynamic calling as disciples of Jesus Christ.
In the midst of widespread societal and cultural change, Kuyper was concerned that without careful attention the church would cease to be what it was called to be. If the church became over-focussed on itself through a fearful retreat from public engagement in the midst of cultural change, then the church would become obsolete and marginalized and lose all contact with the world outside the church, the church’s mission field. Or, if the church complacently adopted the same ideals and values and beliefs of the rapidly changing culture, the church’s faith would become coopted by secularizing cultural forces and simply become a religious mirror image of the surrounding culture. Neither represented ideal forms of Christian faithfulness and mission.
And so Kuyper discerned that the church has a bi-modal way of being in the world. It is both a gathered community within society and a sent influence within culture. As a gathered community (institution), the church could maintain its purity of faith. And as a sent influence (organism), the church could maintain its comprehensive world-engagement. Here’s how Kuyper himself explained this:
The church, as a body of Christian believers, is “rooted” in its mystical union with Christ. At the same time, the church, as an institution within society, is “grounded” in a particular history, geography, and society. It is the organic life of the church which gives it it’s “natural [divine] growth … [it is] a force that comes to outward expression from the inside.” But, the “church not only grows, but [it] is also built” as an institution. And these two modes of the church’s being, as an organism and as an institution, are tied inextricably together in a dynamic relationship. The church, Kuyper says, “is one loaf, dough that rises according to its [organic] nature but nevertheless [is] kneeded with human hands, and baked like bread [an institution].”
Kuyper’s view of the church is very similar to his understanding of the Incarnation and the Old Testament nation of Israel. Just as the divine Law revealed through Moses constituted the nation of Israel, and as the second person of the Trinity became a human being as Jesus of Nazareth, so also the divine life-force of God’s Spirit renews a people who come to redeemed self-consciousness that manifests itself in a concrete legal, judicial institution of society. But there are not two Israel’s (one a legal code and another a people) or two Jesuses (one divine and another human). So also, there are not two churches (one being redeemed people and another being the gathering of believers).
Drawing on Calvin’s metaphor of the church as the mother of believers (Institutes, 4:1:4-5), Kuyper says that the organic and institutional modes of the church work together: as her “womb granted us life, her care nurtures us.” In other words, “The organism is the essence, the institution is the form.” But of these two aspects, it is the organic that has priority because the church is always dependent on divine grace and love for its life. As Kuyper says, “The institution alone never constitutes the church… A Church cannot be manufactured; a polity, no matter how tidy, and a confession, no matter how spotless, are powerless to form a church if the living organism is absent.”
Kuyper then says that it is the church, as both an organism and an institution, that has a world-engaging posture. Kuyper roots this posture in Jesus’ metaphors of his followers being salt and light in the world. That is, the light becomes concentrated in corporate worship (institution) and then dispersed and refracted during the rest of life, in the whole of life, through the various callings and occupations of each Christian as they go about their lives (organic).
Kuyper is picking up on the dynamic inherent in the biblical metaphors of salt and light for the church’s world-engagement. The church is a concentration (gathered as an institution) that is then dispersed through a larger space, penetrating the whole from the centre (sent as an organism). The light of the city shines in the darkness to the most remote distance. And the arresting power of the salt, once spread through the entirety of the meat, does its work against all corruption.
And this dynamic breaks down if either aspect is eliminated or downplayed, either the gathering or the sending, the institution or the organism. If the light remains hidden within the city walls or if the salt remains in the shaker, they are of no effect. Likewise, if the source of the light is extinguished, its rays may travel but will soon fade away. If the storehouse of salt runs empty, the salt that has been used up will lose its saltiness and no longer perform its necessary function. Therefore, both concentration (gathered institution) and extention (sent organism) must take place in a living, dynamic rhythm for the metaphor to function and the meaning to remain intact.
The church in both modes of being, institution and organism, are equally important. A church that bears the light and salt of the gospel is a church that is not only embedded within its context but is also missionally engaged with that context.
Dynamic Discipleship and the Church Today
For Kuyper, the church is a public civic institution within society (gathered) as well as a movement/organism of redeemed Christian believers who go into all the world as witnesses for Christ (sent). And as an institution within society and a movement of people within culture, the church is oriented to and engaged with the world. It is this nuance that gives Christian discipleship today the dynamism that’s required to meet the challenges of our secular society.
There are countless examples of how this theological complexity can result in faithful Christian living. Allow me to limit myself to two concrete illustrations. One will focus on the institutional church and the other on organic Christian witness in the whole of life.
Temptation #1: Believe all things to reach all people.
When a culture undergoes massive and rapid change, sometimes the institutional church is tempted to believe that the only way to remain relevant with that changing culture is to adopt the same new ideas and values that are taking hold. The thinking goes that “If we just get with the times, we’ll turn our decline around.” The end result is a church that’s merely a mirror-image of the surrounding culture.
This is exactly what happened repeatedly throughout the twentieth century. As new developments in politics, biblical studies, and economics occurred, the church experimented with these new developments and the results have been disastrous for authentic Christian faith. In South Africa, political apartheid spawned a parallel apartheid of mono-cultural churches. In Germany, secular historical-critical scholarship resulted in a biblical text that was no longer viewed as authoritative or even divinely-inspired. In North America, the market and therapeutic values of the changing economy unleashed a narcissistic consumerism among churches all clamoring to out-advertise themselves as the next best thing.
Kuyper cautions us that this way of thinking about the church’s missional engagement is not only unnecessary but naive. Instead, the role of the institutional church is to maintain its orthodox confession of faith so that it can be the faithful instrument of bringing others into a redemptive encounter with Jesus Christ. And having brought people into a transformational union with Christ, the institutional church then disciples them to be the world-engaging (organic) church that is then sent into the whole world.
Temptation #2: Christian Faith and Living Takes Place in the Church
When the culture around us changes, Christians are often tempted to find a safe place of refuge within the comfortable and familiar walls of the institutional church. The thinking goes that “This culture is becoming toxic and the only way to remain faithful is through separation.” But the end-result of this way of thinking is a ghettoized faith that has become a subculture disconnected from the surrounding culture to the point that all meaningful connections are lost.
This is exactly what has happened to countless churches across North America. As the culture has changed and as churches have developed a bunker-like mentality of retreat from the changing culture, Christians no longer have real relationships with non-Christians. In fact, many Christians today are known by the general population more for what they’re against than what they’re for. Christians today are often ridiculed for their sectarian attitudes, their otherworldly religious lingo, and their standoffish snobbishness. Most of the recent research being done at Barna, for example, highlights this growing divide between Christians sequestered off by themselves and the general population.
Kuyper reminds us that our Christian discipleship takes place in the world. It is the calling of each Christian believer to take their living union with Christ out into the world through their vocations and general way of life. Christians are the people God has redeemed to be sent as witnesses into the whole of the world, in every activity of life outside the church, to bear the message of the gospel in words, actions, and attitudes. Christians are part of a world-wide cultural movement that seeks to influence everything they touch in subtle, subversive, and explicit ways for Christ. Christian believers are the doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, teachers and administrators, bakers and electricians, parents and retirees who see it as their calling to be the salt and light of Christ in the midst of a dying world. Each Christian’s citizenship is their discipleship to be Christ to the people they encounter each day.
And so in this nuanced way of viewing the church, as an organism and an institution, Kuyper reminds Christians today of the nuance that’s needed to effectively bear witness to Christ in our diverse and secular culture today. That’s why you need to know about Abraham Kuyper.
Dr. Michael R. Wagenman is author of Lexham Press’ “Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper” and “The Power of the Church: The Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper” Christian Reformed Chaplain and member of the graduate faculty in theology at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. He also teaches New Testament to undergraduate students at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, and “Vocational Wayfinding” to graduate students at the Institute for Christian Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the founding chair of the Scripture and Church Seminar program unit in the Institute for Biblical Research. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (UK) on the theology and philosophy of power within 19th and 20th century Reformed and Roman Catholic ecclesiology. His personal website is www.MichaelRWagenman.com