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.