(Kuyper has talked about gradual church renewal in those churches which have not departed far from the Scriptures. He has described what must be done to bring them back. In the following paragraphs he talks about reformation in churches which cannot be reformed from within.)
55. Concerning Reformation By A Break With The Existing Church.
Covenant renewal by means of a spiritual awakening cannot be understood as reformation any more than church renewal. In a narrow sense, the term “reformation” has no other connotation than that of the historical reformation of the sixteenth century which took place under the inspiration of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and which led to a break at that time with the existing church.
Anticipating a possible misunderstanding, we must make a sharp distinction between two very different cases. It is one thing to attack the existing church in such a way that this leads to a reforming of the old church in which one was born. It is something entirely different to depart from that old church and to establish alongside of or over against it a new church. Both these things happened in the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
In Amsterdam, e.g., and in London, just as in Wittenburg and Geneva, the reformers did not sever their relationships with the church in which they were born in order to establish a new church, but they loosened their own old church from its relationship with other churches, called into existence a new and better church relationship, and purified the church from errors. On the other hand, as in Paris and Vienna, in Poland and Italy, people left the church in which they were baptized and established a new church over against the old.
Attention is rarely paid to this important difference. Men commit the error of considering as church only the one big common church as it was bound together in a unity under papal authority. And because our fathers in Paris as well as Amsterdam broke with the Romish hierarchy, people imagined incorrectly that also here in our own land and in London a new church was established. This was, however, not at all the case. As soon as the matter is considered, even the most backward of us knows enough to realize that the Reformation did not really call a new church into being in this land, but the church was only a continuation in purer form of the old Christian churches which began here in the sixth and seventh centuries. That which a part of us did in 1834 in the work of reformation is not at all the same as that which happened in Amsterdam when Amsterdam became Protestant.¹ It would be the same if our fathers had succeeded in overthrowing in the churches the synodical hierarchy. The movement of 1834 can only be compared with the reformation in lands such as Poland and Italy where the old church continued to maintain itself and the new little churches of the reformation could sprout only as new little plants alongside of the condemned old church.
To be clear on this matter we shall speak respectively and successively of both forms of church reformation: of reformation by means of a break with the existing church in which the concern is for the reforming of the old church; then reformation by means of a break with the existing church which results in the establishment of another church alongside of the existing church.
A mixture of these two kinds of church reformation can also take place. In that case certain men succeed in purifying their old church through reformation of certain abuses, but the other churches with which they stand in denominational connection cannot be persuaded to join a similar church reformation movement. Then a clash takes place which necessarily leads to a destruction of the old and a construction of a new church connection. This is a mixture of the two kinds of reformation because people do not then establish a new church but a new denomination; and so, in so far as this concerns an individual church, it comes under the first category, while in so far as it concerns the denomination at large it falls into the second category.
This forces us, for purposes of clarity, to describe separately this mixture of the two kinds of church reformation. The result is that we shall now treat this whole subject under three different headings.
1) Reformation through a break with the existing church by means of which reformation succeeds in maintaining the existing church in her church connection
2) Reformation by a break with the existing church by which a new church is set up.
3) Reformation through a break with the existing church by which one is obligated to form a new church over against the old.
Only by this threefold division is it possible to have a clear insight into the way reformation works.
“A break with the existing church” is the most common expression for all more or less radical reformation. But this break can take place either with the existing organization alone (congregation), or with the existing church connection (denomination), or finally, not only with these two, but also with the existing church in its entirety.
There is not only a sharply defined distinction between these three, but also an ascent from the narrower to the broader.
The first break is only temporary, the wound which heals.
The second break is lasting, but concerns not the church but the denomination.
The third break involves the organization and denomination not only, but involves the church itself in its entirety.
The best known example of the first kind of break is to be found in the history of the reformatory movement of the Reformed at the time of the Remonstrants. In s’ Gravenhage, Harlem and many other places, even in classes and synods, this led to a very definite break, but to a break which was healed again at the Synod of Dordt and which since that time has entirely disappeared.
An example of the second kind of break is found in the reformation of Wittenburg, Zurich, and Geneva, in Amsterdam, London, and Copenhagen, in the sixteenth century.
The churches of the Afscheiding in our own fatherland are examples of the third kind of break.
It is also to be noticed that a break with the existing church is never understood by those who make the break in any other way than as being a break with a sham church or a false imitation of the church.
The justification or condemnation of such a break thus depends almost entirely on the question whether this characterization of a church as a sham or false church is just. And so we must turn to a discussion and careful consideration of the marks of the church by which this question is decided.
¹ The reference is here to the Afscheiding under the leadership of De Cock, Van Raalte, and others.