By Ruben Alvarado
Once upon a time, the state shared the public square with the church. The central location of the church building in every European town is mute testimony to this state of affairs. But those days are long gone. Nowadays there is an implicit or explicit consensus regarding the proper place of the church: out of sight and out of mind.
How has this sea change come about? Has it simply been a passage from primitivism to sophistication, from “Dark Ages” to “Enlightenment,” as so many would have us believe? In any case, it is visible first and foremost in the public square, where there has been a complete metanoia (“change of mind”). Church and state used to be in agreement about ultimate reality. But then came the wars of religion and the desire for a neutral state. This gave us the agnostic state, incapable of making any judgement regarding truth or falsehood regarding religion. “Freedom of religion” has been the result.
Abraham Kuyper, the entrepreneur par excellence of politics both ecclesiastical and civil, discerned this reality as no other and hitched his, and Calvinism’s, wagon to it. Essentially, Kuyper established two positions within the modern landscape. Firstly, the agnosticism of the modern state. Whether or not the state ought to judge in matters of religion is not the important thing, for the fact of the matter is, the state is incapable of judging in such matters. As such, it cannot establish any relation with any church. This latter is exacerbated by the second position Kuyper established: ever since the Reformation and the breakup of the unified church, there have been a plethora of churches; and the state, blind as it is to spiritual things, is unable to choose between them, and recognize in one of them the true church.
The story goes that this has provided the churches and all other faith communities with freedom, realizing the goal of “a free church in a free state.” After all, if the state can no longer make pronouncements in matters of faith, then it can no longer persecute people for their beliefs. Did not the church, once upon a time, burn people at the stake for heresy? And did not Calvin, and the Reformed church fathers after him, argue precisely for the continuation of this state of affairs?
P. J. Hoedemaker, a contemporary rival of Kuyper’s, begged to differ. In his comprehensive refutation of Kuyper’s claims, he showed that it was blasphemy, not heresy, for which the Reformed fathers argued civil penalties – a policy with which even Kuyper agreed. Furthermore, they always defended freedom of conscience, something which Article 36 guarantees.
The point was not individual heresies here and there, but the simple matter that this manner of framing church/state relations loosed the sheet anchor of truth. Hoedemaker saw that the flip side of this “free church in a free state” was the loss of contact with ultimate reality, with transcendent standards and values. When no standard of value is established – and for Hoedemaker, this was provided first and foremost by Holy Scripture – it is every person for him- or herself, the triumph of congeries of opinion over truth.
In that case, the church no longer speaks prophetically to the public condition. It is reduced to an individualistic cacophony, fragmented into myriad disjointed churches, none of which may claim ultimacy, all of which claim to proclaim the truth. As such, we no longer have the body of Christ visibly expressed; instead we have denominations, private-legal constructs expressive of various consumer-oriented flavors of faith orientation.
Denominations are entities evacuated of all content relevant to broader society. For what is a denomination? A creature of a nominalistic orientation, indicative of nothing except “we leave the content of this grouping to be self-determined, and we take no regard of it outside the grouping.” Just like currency, denominations give us nothing more to go by than a number. “Faith community” denominations tell us of nothing more than the existence of “spirituality,” which of course has nothing to do with “secular” life and institutions. In Hoedemaker’s terms, it expresses the negation.
The landscape, then, comprises a secular state accorded exclusive jurisdiction over the public square, and churches withdrawn into a confused jumble of private initiatives. Church unity has thus been abandoned as an atavistic longing for a past that will never return. But unity itself has not been abandoned. On the contrary: the quest for unity is ineradicable. It is not a question of unity or no unity, it is a question of what kind of unity. And in the modern world, hand in glove with the agnostic state, the churches have exchanged unity in terms of confession with unity in terms of politics.
Political parties are the vehicles through which Christians express a joint conviction. In Kuyper’s time, it was the Anti-Revolutionary Party marshalling the kleyne luyden, the “little guys,” into a political force to be reckoned with. The Dutch political and social landscape became divided up into zuilen, “pillars,” each with its own political party, media outlets, educational institutions, and the like. But as Hoedemaker argued, “The ideal can only be realized through kindred spirits, and for their benefit. And this little group, reduced by the pressure of this principle, is ecclesiastically isolated, while society … becomes more and more secularized…. The gains from this method do not outweigh the losses! We can quickly achieve the immediate goal. But by doing so we lose the [national] church and the people!”
In our day we have the advent of Moral Majorities of left and right, pursuing goals derived from considerations of ultimate reality through the vehicle of the blind-as-a-bat secular state. Hoedemaker was unimpressed. “In what consists the peculiarity of this system? In not according to the state its own judgment in matters concerning religion and morality …. The state is the beast that is ridden, the boy in the bowling alley who sets up the fallen tenpins.” This method has alienated Christians from each other and made it impossible to heal festering wounds. And Hoedemaker saw this as the inevitable result of the process.
“In the parliamentary system, the majority in fact rules, which, in a country with a mixed population, is obtained through coalition. Due to its principle of neutrality, the state refuses to honor the truth, and it makes public institutions into hotbeds of unbelief; and through the parliamentary system it forces those who stand for that truth to consign it to private institutions at the expense of national unity.”
Indeed – national unity goes the way of the dodo bird, as political parties pursue fragmentation and coalition in a balkanized political landscape. The church is harnessed to the political party; it is brought down to the level of the interest group and the lobbyist. All of this is the inevitable result of an age of denominationalism.
What is the way out of this impasse? Hoedemaker saw two areas to address. Not surprisingly, these two correspond to the two areas in which Kuyper made his concessions. First, constitutional reform, providing for the recovery of the “state with the Bible.” Second: visible, organized church unity, whereby the church with one voice exercises its prophetic ministry by way of public interpretation of Scripture. The former he addressed in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, the latter in Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Denominationalism. These books, originally published in 1901 and 1904, respectively, have now been published for the first time in English translation. Although the exposition reflects the times in which it was written, the principles are applicable across the board in the modern world. Hoedemaker excavated the biblical and Reformational foundations of ecclesiology and church/state relations, apart from which the church cannot escape from its current abasement.
Ruben Alvarado is a US citizen living in the Netherlands with his wife and three children. He is an independent scholar and translator working on economics, law, and theology. Currently his particular focus is on the thought of Dutch Reformed theologian P. J. Hoedemaker
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