Tag Archives: Abraham Kuyper

Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado.  Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.

Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United ReformedCanadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.

Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:

[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)

But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:

The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.

I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity.  It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.

This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905.  It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents.  This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.

Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure.  While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church.  At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated.  Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others.  However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.

This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900.  In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist.  In 1896, Kuyper went a step further.  Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36.  A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine.  These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter.  The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!).  It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.

In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36.  More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36.  He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent.  On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life.  But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist.  Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency.  Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.

Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling.  One is mentioned early in the book.  He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5).  He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences.  The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics.  The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers.  Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.

The other point is a procedural one.  Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology.  Then he remarks:  “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69).  This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory.  I have been unable to find an answer to that question.  It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first.  If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment?  I find it perplexing.

Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues.  This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too.  Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119).  He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness.  Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30).  However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church.  By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36.  The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.”  Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.

Let me make a few comments about the translation.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of.  Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days.  The translator literally renders them “Sundays.”  Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.”  Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie.  Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.

Who should read this book?  I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics.  When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention.  Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36?  This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too.  Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it.  Note well:  we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with.  This is something completely different.  In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36.  That is a possibility.  But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.

 


Quotable Church History: “Not a square inch…”

This is the ninth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

The man behind today’s quote once also wrote this about Jesus Christ:  “He is not God to me, for my religious sense teaches me to know but one God.  To me he is a man and nothing but a man.”  Abraham Kuyper wrote those words to his fiancée Johanna Schaay in about 1860.  He was a doctoral student in theology, but clearly not yet a Christian in the biblical sense of the word.  That would come later — after his ordination to the ministry.  God would use a number of different means, including a spinster church member named Pietje Baltus, to bring Kuyper to true saving faith in Jesus Christ.  You can read more about all that here.

Eventually God used Kuyper in a powerful way to bring about a reformation in the Hervormde Kerk (the Dutch state church).  Kuyper was the leading figure in the Doleantie of 1886.  However, prior to that, he was also the driving force behind the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam.  He had a vision for a university free from the bonds of church and state.  It would be a Christian institution, certainly, but not beholden to the powers which had caused so much decline in the Dutch state universities of the era.  The Free University of Amsterdam opened its doors on October 20, 1880.  It had five professors and eight students.

Kuyper delivered the opening address.  Entitled “Sphere Sovereignty,” it encapsulated his vision for the university.  It laid out how the Free University was going to be different — holding to a Christian worldview ethos in which every aspect (sphere) falls under the sovereignty of God.  It was a masterpiece of Kuyperian rhetoric.  The famous quote comes towards the end of this address:  “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”  These are undoubtedly Kuyper’s most famous words — they’ve been quoted by Tim Keller, Chuck Colson, and numerous other luminaries.

Quoted as often as it is, is it true?  Colossians 1:17-18 speaks about Christ in the same way:

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

Christ is to be preeminent in everything because, as the Holy Spirit points out earlier in Colossians 1, Christ is the One through whom all things were created.  Everything belongs to him and he is sovereign over it all.  Jesus is Lord over all and Kuyper’s words powerfully expressed that biblical truth.  There’s a good reason why he’s called “Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).

Kuyper is sometimes regarded a villain in church history because of the role his views would play in later church controversies in the Netherlands.  However, on the point of Christ’s sovereignty over all human endeavours, we all ought to stand with “Father Abraham.”  It’s amazing to think that this man went from denying Christ’s divinity in 1860 to preaching Christ’s divine sovereign prerogatives in 1880.  In those 20 years, God not only transformed his heart and mind, but also the hearts and minds of countless other Reformed church members.  Since then, Kuyper’s words and the thoughts behind them have gone on to inspire many other Christians to take Christ’s claims seriously.  For that we should praise God’s sovereign grace, but also take those claims seriously ourselves in every area of life.


Quotable Church History: “If I had to add a single sigh to my salvation…”

This is the eighth in a series on famous quotes from church history.  We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

By the late 1700s, the Reformed church in the Netherlands had largely become anemic.  Unbelief and liberal theology ran rampant.  There were few gospel preachers and only scattered handfuls of true believers.  Instead, what dominated was the type of religion emphasizing Jesus as the good example for a moral life.  Doctrine was  sidelined, along with the creeds and Reformed confessions.

This was the story in the tiny village church of Ulrum coming into the 1800s.  Ulrum is located in the north-west of the Dutch province of Groningen (one of the two most northern Dutch provinces).  In 1826, Ulrum received a new pastor in the person of Petrus Hofstede de Groot.  De Groot was the typical minister of his day.  In one place he summarized his belief:  “Christianity is no doctrine, it is power, spirit, and life, for the enlightenment, warming, sanctification, and perfection of man.”  His message was moral improvement.  While some delighted in the pablum he offered in his weekly preaching, others in Ulrum saw the sad reality.  Several Ulrum members refused to make a public profession of faith with de Groot as their minister.  Thankfully, de Groot’s ministry was short:  he left to teach at the University of Groningen in 1829, only three years after arriving in Ulrum.

De Groot handpicked his successor.  Hendrik de Cock was his good friend and a like-minded preacher.  He arrived in Ulrum in October 1829.  At first his preaching was much the same as de Groot.  However, he did make some changes.  For example, prior to his arrival, Ulrum consistory meetings were never convened or closed with prayer.  De Cock introduced prayer at the beginning of the first meeting of the year and prayer at the end of the last meeting of the year.  It was a small step.  Nevertheless, despite being a minister and quite religious, de Cock was really no different than de Groot at this time:  both were missing the gospel, and both were lacking in true faith.

One of the members who had refused to make profession of his faith with de Groot was a working-class brother by the name of Klaas Pieters Kuypenga.  In due time, de Cock urged Kuypenga to come by the Ulrum manse for an hour a week to receive further instruction.  Kuypenga agreed.  But what happened was remarkable.  Kuypenga became one of God’s instruments to bring de Cock to true faith in Jesus Christ.  During one of their sessions, Kuypenga remarked to his pastor:  “If I had to add a single sigh to my salvation, I would be eternally lost.”  This language stunned de Cock and it put the proverbial stone in his shoe — he couldn’t stop thinking about what this meant.  In due time, God would providentially bring other factors into play so that de Cock would become a Christian and start preaching like one.  De Cock would go on to challenge the liberalism of the Dutch Reformed Church and be instrumental in a reformation known as the Secession (in Dutch: Afscheiding) of 1834.

One would think it rather obvious that Kuypenga spoke biblical truth to his pastor.  Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse…”  Adding anything from our works to Christ’s work would place us under a curse.  Or one could think of Isaiah 64:6 which insists that even our so-called righteous deeds are like unmentionables in the sight of God.  Furthermore, Romans 3:28 reminds us that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  We have nothing to contribute to our salvation except for the sin which made it necessary.  The moment you seek to add something to the perfect work of Christ, you are holding to a different gospel, a false gospel which will damn you.  Klaas Pieters Kuypenga had been trained by the Holy Spirit to speak his truth.

It wouldn’t be the last time God would use a regular church member as a powerful instrument to bring reformation.  He did something similar with Abraham Kuyper and a lady named Pietje Balthus.  Both Hendrik de Cock and Abrhaham Kuyper were exceptionally learned men, scholarly pastors — and yet God used these “little people” to turn their worlds upside down for the gospel.  These episodes in church history illustrate that 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 continues to hold true:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

 


New Kuyper Resources Added

One of the hats I wear finds me teaching church history again, this time to Grade 7-10 students at our John Calvin School here in Launceston.  Tomorrow they’re beginning a research project on Abraham Kuyper.  To assist them, and for anyone else interested, I’ve just added a couple of articles on Kuyper.  These two pieces were originally published in the November 2013 issue of Reformed Perspective:

Abraham Kuyper: Larger than Life

Kuyper’s Legacy: For Better and For Worse


Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.