Abraham Kuyper's Unique Ecclesiology

Abraham Kuyper's On the Church is our featured book during the month of February. Below is an excerpt from the volume's introduction by Ad de Bruijne.

Kuyper’s concept of the church as a colony of heaven and his careful contextualization shed new light on well-known emphases in his ecclesiology. Particularly notable are his distinction between the church as institute and as organism. 

Institute and Organism

Many interpreters of Kuyper’s ecclesiology consider his emphasis on the church as organism as the core of his contribution to the doctrine of the church. He went beyond the conventional vision of the church as merely an institution and further depicted the church as forming Christian communities in all spheres of life. Through this doctrine, he was able to both meet the liberal demand for the church’s withdrawal into the private sphere and also regain public impact for the church in the post-Enlightenment world.

As we have seen, Kuyper’s emphasis on Christian organizations in all areas of life was a deliberate contextual choice because of the transition he saw in Dutch society. Looking both to the past and future, he could see times when this specific application of the church as organism would be inadequate. In these times, the organic church would be conflated either with the nation or with a marginalized institute. We must also mention a second oft-repeated and equally inadequate evaluation of Kuyper’s ecclesiology—namely, viewing the organic church as substantially different than the institutional church. For Kuyper, the institute was the primary structure from which the church as organism emerged.

It is clear that Kuyper’s foundational concept of the church as a colony of heaven was meant to adjust to changing circumstances in his own time and even in his own works. This deliberate contextuality makes Kuyper’s view a challenging voice in ecclesiological debates in the modern age. His emphasis on the coexistent organic and the institutional dimensions of the church challenges both sides in current discussions. New, experimental church forms and new proposals for the relation between church and society are often met with suspicion or are even simply rejected. Because of their habituation to already-existing institutional forms, conservatives equate their institutions with the core reality of the church itself; they are unable to imagine the possibility that the church’s true nature could be expressed in other forms.

Kuyper, however, would admonish both sides to use caution. As long as this world lasts, institutionality will be necessary. At the same time, as in Kuyper’s day, the church as institution may have to put on new creative forms that reflect the direction of society’s movement. Kuyper proposes an inescapable, defining reality for any new institutional church form. In his view, the function of the church is to bring new, heavenly life into God’s fallen creation. The regular proclamation of God’s Word, which is the seed of that life, must be central to any new church form. This proclamation itself always comes embedded in what the Bible names “calling upon the name of the Lord,” that is, liturgy. New forms of Christian community life must always have this institutional aspect, no matter how organic they may strive to be.

A Brave New Literary World for Biblical Studies

In a few short decades in the latter half of the twentieth century, the interpretation of the Bible underwent a notable shift such as has happened only occasionally over the last few thousand years. During this time the focus in biblical interpretation began to shift from what the text can teach us about the past to also include what the text can teach us about the text (and ourselves). Increasingly, the Bible began to be viewed and read not just as a religious or historical document but also as a literary text. 

This shift in biblical interpretation correlates strongly with the sea change that took place in the Western world during the twentieth century. Two world wars, the end of colonialism, and a sexual revolution formed the backdrop for the “narrative turn” in the study of world literature. There were many more factors than we can possibly mention here. Yet, few have anything to do with the Bible itself. By acknowledging this up front, we can gain a positive perspective on the literary approach to the Bible. It is just one philosophical approach. If we can recognize that the various historical and literary approaches, with their respective methods, are simply tools in an interpreter’s toolbox, we can faithfully use those tools without fear or blame.

The confusion over these literary foundations has led to the rise of a number of inaccurate assumptions about the literary approach to the Bible. Here we mention the most frequent objections to the literary approach to the Bible:

  • The Bible is not literature. The problem with this statement is what one means by “literature.” Usually this statement implies that literature is a specific group of fictional works that range from Milton to Hemingway. However, the term “literature,” while traditionally used to mean “to designate fictional and imaginative writings—poetry, prose fiction, and drama,” now means “any other writings (including philosophy, history, and even scientific works addressed to a general audience) that are especially distinguished in form, expression, and emotional power.” The former definition is closer to what literary critics mean when they use the term “(literary) canon.” As we rely on current definitions of the word “literature,” the Bible is literature.
  • The literary approach is new and therefore anachronistic. The first known occurrence of literary criticism in the West dates back to the production of Aristophanes’ Frogs in 405 bc. After this, Aristotle (384–322 bc), Longinus (fl. late first century ad), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. late first century bc) produced works on literary theory and criticism that are still extant today, not to mention that the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes mentions at least one aspect of literary criticism (Eccl 12:9–10). While some of the individual methods within the broad umbrella of the literary approach to the Bible are new and could be used anachronistically, the approach itself is not new and actually predates the nt (and some parts of the ot as well). Further, some methods within other approaches (such as the historical-critical approach, the most notable predecessor to the literary approach) are also new and can also be used anachronistically. Therefore, anachronism is always a concern for interpreters of ancient texts, regardless of approach and method.
  • The literary approach has no final “answer” in interpretation or endpoint—many different interpretations are equally valid. This claim is partly true and partly false, but it only has a little to do with the literary approach itself.  Differences in interpretation have existed from the moment of creation of any biblical text. In past generations, it was not the method that provided an end to interpretive discussion but rather an authority (such as a council, a church, a church leader, or a consensus). It is true that one of the results of recent literary theory is a proliferation of different methods (and as a result, interpretations), but this is more a result of the proliferation of ideologies in the Western world in the last century than it is of any movement or expectation in the field of biblical studies.
  • The literary approach is not scientific or rigorous (as the historical approach is). This argument depends a great deal on who the interpreter is and whether an appropriate tool is selected. Every approach to Scripture will have less rigorous examples and more rigorous examples, regardless of the approach. Further, “scientific” and “rigorous” are modern ideals that earlier interpreters of Scripture may not have held to be extremely important (as they were not influenced by the modern worldview).
  • The literary approach is not historical/avoids historical concerns. This last objection is the most frequently noted by those critical of the literary approach. It is true that many literary approaches to Scripture avoid or ignore historical questions and concerns. But it is not true in all cases. Furthermore, applications of the literary approach to the Bible are often ahistorical, but rarely anti-historical. In other words, when an interpreter takes a tool from a literary method out of their toolbox, they are letting the reader know that they are focusing on literary concerns more than historical concerns. The same is true when an interpreter decides to employ the historical approach—that interpreter typically is not trying to avoid literary questions; rather, it is just not their focus in this situation. Currently, biblical scholars are using the literary approach to focus on the text, but increasingly they are not shunning historical concerns and questions when appropriate for their interpretive goals.

The detailed analysis of biblical books and passages as written texts has benefited from the study of literature in classical philology, ancient rhetoric, and modern literary criticism. Literary Approaches to the Bible introduces the various ways the study of literature has been used in biblical studies.

Deepen your biblical education with the Lexham Methods Series. All four volumes are available now.

The Benefit of Drawing on Linguistics for Biblical Study

Biblical scholars have been slowly integrating the findings of modern linguistics into their biblical scholarship beginning in the second half of the twentieth century. The following is just one example of how linguistics has advanced our knowledge of biblical Hebrew and provided a plausible explanation for a long running debate.

One of the first vocabulary words students of biblical Hebrew learn is the particle הִנֵּה (hinnē). English translations typically translate הִנֵּה (hinnē) with the interjections “behold!” or “lo!” or “look!” (see, e.g., Gen 1:29; Exod 7:17; 1 Sam 26:24). However, the simplicity of these translations is misleading. In fact, a great deal of uncertainty has long surrounded the meaning and function of the word. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) explains that הִנֵּה (hinnē) is a “deictic and interrupting interjection,” but the 10 glosses that follow this explanation highlight the difficulty of explaining the meaning of הִנֵּה (hinnē) in its wide variety of contexts.

However, a recent study by biblical Hebrew linguists incorporates linguistic methodology to offer a clearer perspective on the meaning and function of הִנֵּה (hinnē). In their 2011 study, Cynthia Miller-Naudé and Christo van der Merwe draw on a linguistic idea, mirativity, that appears in many other languages, and they hypothesize that this same idea can explain the function of הִנֵּה (hinnē) in biblical Hebrew. Mirativity “refers to the linguistic marking for indicating that the information conveyed is new or unexpected to the speaker.”

Some languages indicate mirativity grammatically, but it can be expressed in other ways, too. For example, English can express surprise lexically (e.g., the English expressions “I’m really surprised that” or “Surprisingly”) or even intonationally. Miller-Naudé and van der Merwe illustrate the concept with two examples of English speech patterns that indicate the speaker’s surprise. The first “involves stressing and lengthening the relevant word in the sentence in order to express surprise as a compliment,” as in “Your daughter plays really well.” The second speech strategy uses what they call “question intonation,” as in “You’re not coming? (meaning ‘I’m surprised that you’re not coming, because I thought you were’).

Miller-Naudé and van der Merwe concluded in their exhaustive study of הִנֵּה (hinnē) that the “most typical and central use” of the biblical Hebrew particle is indicating mirativity, and in cases where it does not, their study explains how the word functions instead. By using a characteristic of other language systems, they have been able to offer a better explanation for a difficult feature of biblical Hebrew than what has been previously available.

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Language is remarkably simple and extraordinarily complex at the same time. Children learn to speak and use their native language simply by hearing it spoken. However, anyone who has tried to master another language, especially as an adult, realizes how complicated languages are. Learning an overwhelming list of vocabulary is the first step, followed by mastery of paradigms and learning to decode the syntax of full sentences and paragraphs. At every turn one encounters idiomatic language, connotations the dictionary does not include, and endless cultural elements that affect meaning. Learning vocabulary is the easy part.  

Linguistics is a broad discipline. We are not able—nor is it necessary—to cover all facets of the field in Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis. Neither do we intend to teach readers to do linguistic analysis for themselves, since it is a field that requires expertise in the languages of the Bible as well as in at least one area of formal linguistics. Rather, we will introduce you to the aspects of linguistics that most apply to biblical study so that you can better understand commentaries and other resources that include linguistic discussions. Further, a working knowledge of the field will help you appreciate the complexity of language study and the rigor required of scholars to understand biblical Hebrew and Greek.

In Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis, you will get a basic introduction to the field of linguistics—its history, its key concepts, its major schools of thought, and how its insights can shed light on various problems in biblical Hebrew and Greek. Learn how the study of language can enhance your Bible study.

Deepen your biblical education with the Lexham Methods Series. All four volumes are available now.

Missions to Muslims: Abraham Kuyper Illuminates an Unchanging Goal

This guest post was authored by Joel Wilcox, a member of the editorial team that has worked on the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology.

Reading Abraham Kuyper always makes me think of the adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Readers really can’t deny that Kuyper was a product of his time—deeply concerned about the world, but somewhat condescending toward foreigners; deeply concerned about his country, but aristocratic in his solutions to societal ills; and so on. Yet I’m always impressed by how on-target his words are for today.

In particular, he speaks to my views as a former long-term resident in Southeast Asia among Muslims. Islam is likely the most poorly understood and feared religion among Western Christians (it’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss the validity of that fear). One might expect the same attitude from Kuyper, who led an empire that had brutally lorded its authority over what is now Indonesia—a primarily Muslim country. Imperialist views aside, he saw a deep need to bring the gospel to Muslims not by changing their culture, but by adapting it to faith in Christ. Consider the following, from “Address on Missions,” part of the newly translated On the Church anthology from Lexham Press and the Acton Institute:

Missions among pagans and Muslims, when preaching law and gospel, must be attuned to the distinctive character of the people, particularly the special nature of their idol worship. Complete freedom should be allowed as to the manner in which faith in Christ is confessed, so that when these people are ready to form their own churches their distinctiveness will be preserved.

I’m a member of the missions committee at my church and often hear missionaries complain of other Christians behaving clean contrary to what Kuyper is arguing for here. These missionaries know they are called to bring the gospel to unbelievers, but they bring a distinctly Western flavor of Christianity: Western praise tunes, with the lyrics translated. Western whitewashed churches with steeples. In short, imperialist Christianity. On the contrary, Kuyper, though he certainly had imperialist attitudes, believed that missions absolutely have to be contextualized to be true to the cultures reached.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper

But how do we avoid going too far as missionaries? Was Kuyper intent on, as some missionaries do, allowing Muslims to worship Jesus as secondary to Allah, in mosques, simply praying Christian prayers?

Kuyper has a better answer. He expected missionaries not to be the mavericks I’ve seen on the field, independently “saving souls” and not aware of how to truly quench the thirst for Christ among the unsaved. Once again, he speaks from over a century ago:

Missions among the Jews, Muslims, and pagans has to be carried out through the churches, just as missionary work among the baptized is to be performed by the ministers of the Word.

Add to that the following:

Every notion of a missionary as a hunter who catches souls for Christ must be banned. The missionary is sent by Christ and follows him, seeking his elect. Let’s stop talking about “leading people to Christ” and “saving souls for Jesus.” We cannot save people, not even our own children. Only Christ is able to draw people to the faith.

Kuyper knew that missions would fail utterly without Christ as our guide. Here’s what I take away from his words:

  • We cannot expect the work of the kingdom of heaven to succeed without Christ as its king (read Kuyper’s Pro Rege for more on this). As Kuyper says, it is God who saves souls, through his Son—and it is the Holy Spirit who gives the church courage to tell the nations about Christ.
  • We cannot expect to see a church from every tribe, tongue, and nation without contextualizing Christianity. Our religion must be just as diverse in its cultural flavors as the foods each culture celebrates as its own. Would you bring Thanksgiving dinner to China and expect one of their Muslim minorities—say, Uyghurs—to enjoy it as their own? Then why do we think that our traditional hymns can deeply speak to Uyghurs?
  • On the other hand, we cannot properly contextualize Christianity and still call it Christian unless the Holy Spirit leads us, through his church. Kuyper, as I do, would probably allow Muslim-background believers to call God “Allah” (a word that basically means “God.”) Yet like me, he would never tolerate translating “Son of God” as “servant of God” (I’ve heard missionaries approve of such things if it makes Muslims feel comfortable in the church). 

Though I despise clichés, it’s true: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Missions faced the same challenges in the late 1800s as it does now. Abraham Kuyper makes that clear. Read “Address on Missions” and other timely essays on ecclesiology in On the Church, part of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. All twelve volumes of this series tackle tough issues still facing the church many years after Kuyper’s death, and I’m proud to be a part of the team bringing Kuyper’s writings back to light, for missionaries and for Christianity at large.

Look Closer at the Christmas Story During Advent

The Christmas story has become familiar. We know the story well—so well that we sometimes miss its beauty and power. But when we read Scripture closely, we rediscover the infinite wonder of God’s Word made flesh.

This Christmas, commit to looking closer at Scripture and rediscover the wonder of the Christmas story. Centered around the themes of preparation, anticipation, joy, and incarnation, Anticipating His Arrival guides you through Advent as your expectation of Jesus’ arrival grows. This Advent, follow along as we celebrate Jesus’ first coming in Bethlehem and his second coming, which we await. This guide through Advent is available for free this season.

To join the reading plan, go to Logos.com/look-closer or the Logos Bible Software Faithlife group.

Tocqueville on Democracy, Local Communities, and Moral Character

This guest post was authored by John D. Wilsey, editor of a new abridgment of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.

Once again, we have participated in a national community event that takes place every four years—we have elected a president. The new president will be our forty-fifth. It is astounding that Americans have participated in presidential elections regularly every four years since George Washington was elected in 1789. It is even more astounding when one considers that the quadrennial election for president has taken place despite the nation facing some of its most dangerous threats—the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.

In every presidential election, one group of supporters is jubilant, while the supporters of the losing candidates are dejected. I can certainly relate to that—I cast my first ballot in 1988, and since then I have voted for both winners and losers. The election that has just passed was particularly shocking, because so few saw it coming. Time will tell when, how, and if the country will settle in and be at relative peace with the new administration.

It is indeed interesting how much consternation a presidential contest can achieve among the American people. In my local election, I cast a ballot for a proposed bond measure and another one on a question of whether or not stores could sell liquor within city limits. There was not any public outcry from the losing side of either of these two questions, at least to my knowledge. I can say the same for the election of our state officials. Nobody was in the streets protesting from the losing sides. I have not heard any discontent whatsoever from anyone in my community about the results of our state and local elections.

Why is that? Citizens have a direct and vested interest in their local communities. And while state government is a bit more distant from the citizens, they still have a legitimate stake in their state governments. It is interesting that people have put so much faith in their national government, and in their president in particular. The amount of faith the American people have placed in their national government in general, and president in particular, is demonstrated in the visceral reactions that many have shown in response to Mr. Trump’s victory. 

Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw such a state of affairs in his classic work, Democracy in America. He noted, with sincere admiration, how Americans in 1831-1832 were so deeply engaged with their local affairs. This was the case particularly in New England, where Tocqueville saw that citizens in their townships were deeply engaged in their communal lives because everyone had a stake in the success of their community. The center of political gravity for Americans in New England was not the national, but the local government. Because that was the case, Tocqueville believed that New Englanders were the freest of all the Americans. 

Tocqueville also saw that the Americans of his day were uniquely interested in forming voluntary associations to address issues in which the government had no jurisdiction. At one point, Tocqueville used the example of a local traffic jam—when a road becomes clogged with vehicles and there are no laws to follow and no magistrate present to bring order, Tocqueville said that Americans come together in a voluntary organization to bring order and to clear the road to make travel smooth again. This they do without prompting by the government, but on their own initiative. In the same way, Americans form local voluntary bodies to address hosts of questions and issues, and do so to further their interests independently of the government.

This is how free societies work, Tocqueville said. Laws are important in a democracy, but not nearly as important as the customs, the manners of the people. These manners—the moral character of a society—are what inform the public spirit of the people. They maintain the social integrity of the people and ultimately are the deciding factor on whether a democracy will be defined by liberty or by despotism. 

If a society’s manners are informed by Christian morals through a disestablished church, then liberty can be secured through citizen’s continual engagement with their local affairs through the townships, counties, state, and national government. But if the citizens become too obsessed with self, to enamored of materialistic concerns, and complacent in their local communities, they will rely more and more on a national government to take care of the details that they themselves would have taken care of through their local processes. When that level of complacency prevails, the democracy has become a despotism. 

As we consider our current situation, we should ask ourselves: have we allowed America to become a democratic despotism through our complacency? Have we lost our vested interest in our local communities, and put all our trust in our national leaders to take care of us? Have we allowed ourselves to become so enraptured by national public figures that we adore them or revile them as we would an emperor?

Tocqueville wrote, “For my part, I am persuaded that, in all governments, whatever their nature may be, servility will cower to force, and adulation will follow power. The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which the sure method of debasing them.”

That sounds easy, but Tocqueville’s prescription requires American citizens to be vigilant in their guarding of their local interests, informed by manners that are rooted in morality. When this healthy public spirit prevails, we will find unity and peace in our national polity—even when the person we voted against wins the presidential election.

Karl Barth on Time, Eternity, and Jesus Christ

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the relationship between eternity and time among philosophers, scientists, and theologians. Theologically, this question gets at the age-old problem of how an eternal God can interact with a temporal creation. A new generation of theologians is not content with the traditional answers proffered through the centuries. An eternal God who is wholly removed from our present experience and affliction, the thinking goes, is not a God we can trust. Karl Barth has been increasingly tapped as a resource for exploring this subject.

Barth’s Christology is neither metaphysical nor merely heuristic; rather, it must be understood as an act—an event. The event of Jesus Christ in God’s life is the only solution to the problem of time and eternity in every locus of theology—whether the doctrine of God, creation, reconciliation, or revelation. Jesus Christ is himself God, creation, reconciliation, and revelation. He is no abstract God but is both the electing, eternal God and the elected, temporal man in one divine act of rapprochement. Further, he is no abstract creature but is both the eternal Creator and the temporal creature in one divine act of rapprochement. Similarly, Jesus Christ is no abstract redeemer but is both the eternal redeemer and the time-bound man of sinful flesh in one divine act of rapprochement. Finally, for Barth there is no abstract notion of revelation but Jesus Christ is both the eternal revealer and the temporal receiver of revelation in one divine act of rapprochement. God, creation, reconciliation, and revelation are the eternal act of God in Jesus Christ, in whom and by whom time is eternity and eternity is time—precisely because and insofar as he has become time. 

This actualistic and temporal way of relating eternity and time is as monumental as it is revolutionary. In an attempt to bridge the infinite gap between eternity and time, Barth brings God and creation together in a third time-sphere—his theology is three-dimensional. He affirms the theological existence of three times: God’s time, our time, and the time of Jesus Christ. This last time is what Barth refers to as Gottes Zeit für uns—God’s time for us (Die kirchliche Dogmatik I/2, 50). Gottes Zeit für uns is a transcendent act of God in the event of Jesus Christ. Here, the Creator and the creature are temporally agglomerated in a perichoretic interpenetration of eternal divinity and temporal creatureliness in which God has become time without ceasing to be eternal. Thus eternity and time will always be one. In other words, they will always be Jesus Christ. For Barth, the rapprochement of eternity and time takes place in a transcendentally temporal act of God in Jesus Christ called “God’s time for us.” It is this act of rapprochement on God’s part that provides the conceptual foundation for Barth’s theologizing about his doctrine of election, creation, reconciliation, and revelation.

For Barth, Jesus Christ is himself a dialectical relation existing always and everywhere as a transcendent event. In him, eternity becomes temporal without ceasing to be eternal. Likewise, in him time is eternal without ceasing to be time. This is a relation-act that takes place in the event of God’s life that is Jesus Christ; it does not occur in “our time.” Our time is fallen time and is therefore incapable of containing God or bearing the acts of revelation, creation, and reconciliation. And it is not God’s time, which exists in a rarefied field of eternity. Rather, it is a third time: the time of Jesus Christ, who is himself God, and as such is also the act of creation, reconciliation, and revelation. He has always been the eternal God without ceasing to be temporal man. He is a time-bound man without ceasing to be the eternal God. Thus Christian theology may never speak about God or man, Creator or creation, Savior or saved, revelation given or received, in the abstract. The church must always speak about eternity and time as the dialectical reality of the event in God’s life who is Jesus Christ. In this way, Barth proposes a consistently, unapologetically, and unequivocally Christian answer to the problem of the relationship between eternity and time. Furthermore, it is also a distinctly theological proposal as opposed to a speculative-philosophical one.

Barth’s theology stands at the juncture of two converging concepts. The first is the idea of a three-dimensional structure, qualified in terms of time. The second is the solution to the eternity/time problem found in a transcendent act of God. If these two insights into Barth’s thought remain underdeveloped, the radical nature of Barth’s proposal is muted or missed altogether. Too often, interpreters resort to understanding his theology as if he allows for a substance ontology. But until Barth is read consistently as a post-metaphysical, dialectical, and actualistic theologian, the greatest depths of his thought will never be plumbed.

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God's Time for Us: Barth's Reconciliation of Eternity and Time in Jesus Christ by James J. Cassidy is now available in all formats.