In “It Shall Not Be So Among You,” Kuyper presents us his first sermon after the church dispute around 1883. American scholar James Bratt claims that this writing is important because of the principles Kuyper offers us by using applied theology to the situation he was facing. From this, one will observe Kuyper’s role as a modern church reformer. Such a role, however, was not free of controversy. The Doleantie, as Kuyper called it, shows us not only Kuyper’s zeal about the church but also his fierce personality. As Bratt argues, “his church reform proved to be the greatest disappointment of his life.” (Bratt, p. 151) He promoted a church split and succeeded. Without any doubt, I am convinced that such an event shaped Kuyper’s life strongly.
Kuyper not only split the church but opened fundamental questions about the identity and mission of his own movement, of the Reformed tradition, of the whole nation, Bratt writes.
Personally, I do not see this church split promoted by Kuyper as merely a negative event. Rather, although radical, this difficult event opened the door for the Dutch Reformed church to look for renewal from within.
An interesting fact was that the Doleantie resembled Kuyper’s agenda of 1869. Such agenda dealt with his Kuyper’s vision for education and school. For Bratt, “the Doleantie was the radicalized form of the Calvinistic agenda for school – and church – reform that Kuyper had first unveiled in Utrecht in 1869, elaborated into a systematic program a decade later, and now put into direct action.” (Bratt, p. 157) Bratt suggests a significant point here: Kuyper’s project was not new. Instead, it had been reshaped and improved. This should not be a surprise taking into account Kuyper’s belief that the Dutch church seemed to be blind (Cf. Bratt, p. 158). He wanted to challenge the status quo. For Kuyper, church reformation was not only a matter of doctrine. His vision was broader. The reform dealt with church structure, organization, hierarchy, and church renewal. Although Kuyper’s Doleantie was found at the end as a fellowship and not to represent the former Dutch Reformed Church, this fact did not stop Kuyper from promoting his vision. Kuyper ended with a church denomination, which eventually merged with the Christian Reformed Church of the Netherlands.
Now, one might argue that Kuyper’s church reform failed. In part it did. In part, it did not. By Kuyper’s original hopes, his project fell far short. However, Kuyper’s assessment of the Dutch Reformed Church was right in many respects. I think the Doleantie’s merger with the Christian Reformed Church demonstrates Kuyper’s project succeeded, at least partly. Nonetheless, the cost was extremely high.
The Doleantie issue raises the question of Kuyper as a theologian. As Bratt correctly recognizes, the source of Kuyper’s theology is his understanding of the church (Bratt, p. 172). His notion of the church as organism prevented Kuyper of considering the church as a static institution that did not experience change, especially when those changes were related to the cultural dimension of the church. Not surprisingly, Bratt identifies Kuyper as a “theologian [working] under the rubric of the three C’s” – the church, culture, and Calvinism. (Bratt, p. 172). One must note, however, that Kuyper’s theology was influenced by other theologians as well. Schleiermacher, for example, influenced Kuyper with his notion of the church as a free and voluntary community (Bratt, p. 174). Calvin’s teaching, of course, played a significant role as well. “With all Calvinists, he espoused a robust Trinitarianism, a radical theocentricity. and an overriding concern with the redemptive work of Christ,” Bratt writes (Bratt, p. 173).
Perhaps, the most important topic related to Kuyper’s role as a theologian was his development of the idea of the church as an organism. This notion allowed Kuyper to elevate the church more by contrasting the body of Christ who is witnessing in their everyday vocations vs. the institutional church (the church on earth as we know it).
Notes & References
All references are taken from Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).