Chapter I: General Principles
1. What the Reformation of the Churches implies.
Reformation of churches implies first of all that the churches of Christ have a certain form or shape or figure which are uniquely hers as church. It implies, secondly, that this form or shape or figure can become impure by deformation or deformity. And it implies, thirdly, the obligation to restore this deformed or misfashioned or misformed church by reformation or renewal to the original form and good shape and normal figure which flows forth from her essence and is determined by her character.
2. From what the correct form of the churches is known.
The correct form or figure or shape of churches is known from Holy Scripture. This is not in the often supposed sense as if Holy Scripture presents us with regulations for the establishment of a church, or a church order for the management of churches, or even an explanation of principles brought into a system which leads us to this. Holy Scripture does not present us with anything like this. Therefore anyone is in error who either makes a rule of an example in Scripture or who strings together expressions standing by themselves to acquire by his own ingenuity what he fruitlessly sought in Scripture. No, authority and complete authority Holy Scripture exercises in the matter of the church only because it shows us in unmistakable ways how the Triune God brought and brings into this world that which fell into and still lies in evil, operations and powers which (according to immoveable law and in definite ways bring His church into existence and preserve it.)
The world brings forth no church from the womb of her own life which is sunk under the curse. Rather her life is at odds with the essence of the church. It does not tolerate the church and reacts against her as against a power which is set up for the restriction and curbing of the world’s sinful nature. The root of the church is not hidden in the world but outside of it in the counsel of God. In the counsel of God is the eternal good pleasure to bring all things finally to the end of the glory of the Triune God in spite of sin, death, and the devil.ï¿½ Its end is the establishment of a kingdom of glory of which the throne shall eternally stand firm and unshakable. It is the anointing of the Mediator as King in that kingdom, as Prince to sit on that throne, as the ordaining of that King for a people who as a body live under Him and are bound to Him as their Head. And it is finally the election of those certain persons who as subjects of that King are rightly members of that body.
By the working out and fulfillment of that counsel the church now exists in this world in a way which is for us incomprehensible. There proceeds from God to this world words, powers, works, influences, messages. And the fruit of this many-sided work of God is that the church comes into being. As much as the world opposes the church it stays. And in spite of the sin which steals into her own bosom, even sometimes eats into the root of her life, it always grows according to the growth ordained by God for her.
These words, powers, works, influences, and messages which proceed from God to the world continue unbroken from the beginning to the present and shall endure as long as the bride awaits the Bridegroom. If this would cease even for a moment, the church would wither, die, and be no more. No one must limit these words, or works, or messages of God to the time between Adam in Paradise and John on Patmos. Rather they continue unlimited from John to our day and shall continue till Jesus comes.
Only a distinction must be made between those operations of God at that time and now according to their divergent nature and their different dispensation.
It is necessary to pay attention here especially to two differences.
First of all life itself forces us to face two questions. One is: how does life come into existence? And the other is: how is it that life, brought into existence, is now fed, maintained, and continued?
God first creates and forms a child in the womb of its mother, and then it is born to be nourished henceforth first by its mother and then by its own hand. The blood which enters the embryo before birth is not a nourishing but a forming power, completely distinct in nature and manner of operation from all later, proper nourishment. It is the same distinction which is expressed so strongly in the two sacraments: Holy baptism as the sacrament of life coming into existence, and therefore taking place only once; and the Holy Supper as the sacrament of life which is nourished, and therefore, continually repeated. And so two kinds of operations proceed from God for and to His church: first, an operation whereby He begets His church, bares her secretly, and brings her forth in her true form. And after this, secondly, an entirely different work by which He nourishes the church thus brought to birth first with milk and afterwards with solid food.
And with this, this first distinction flows over of itself into the second which we alluded to above.
The church is not the church of one people, but of the whole world. God has called not one nation, but humanity. The triumph of the Lord must be seen not over one nation, but over humanity. The counsel of the Lord of lords shall appear to be powerful not as a certain circle of pious people call upon Him in the bosom of a certain nation, but above all when He has gathered together His church from the whole world so that the “hallelujah” ascends from all nations and in all languages. This the holy apostle calls again and again the great mystery, the great hidden thing “which was hidden in all ages, but is now revealed.”*
Although the Lord always had His true, essential church on earth from the beginning of the world till now, nevertheless on that account there is an obvious distinction between the church during and after the end of particular revelation.
As long as that particular revelation continued, the church was still brought forth, born in secret, and it remained interwoven with the swaddling clothes of Israel’s existence as a nation. It was first with the apostles, and more exactly when the apostolate died away, the hour of her birth striking, that the church stepped out into the light of life and appeared among the nations, manifested in the whole of humanity and of the world. Thus the former is her, period of becoming, the history of her coming into existence. And afterwards there comes finally an entirely different period embracing the whole of life by that church in the middle of the nations, loosed from Israel, living throughout humanity as the church. This period continues yet today. If we take both these distinctions together then we find therefore: there is first a series of operations of God whereby the church in Israel was brought to her birth for the world; and there is on the other hand a series of operations of God entirely distinct from this whereby the church thus born for the world is maintained in that world.¹
Now it lies in the nature of the case, and let us pay close attention to this, that those operations of God in the period of the genesis of the church are normative and binding also for the second period of her existence. Indeed, the potter can make out of the lump of clay a bowl or a jug or a vase according to the free choice of his will just as it pleases him; but when the form of the bowl, e.g., is once chosen and when the form of the bowl is once impressed on the clay, then all further preparation of the bowl is bound to a fixed basic form. And in this way God the Lord could impress on His church at the time of her genesis the form which seemed good to Him; or rather, was good to Him in His eternal counsel. But when that form was once impressed on it and thus the formed church was once born, then God was Himself bound to that first operation, and thus also the entire further development of His church is henceforth subject to the law of that original formation. This law is not arbitrary, but is the impulse of the increated law of life.
It is a fact therefore that the operations which now proceed from God to His church take their cue from the operations with which He formerly brought this church to her birth in the world; and from that principle each person who enters that church, born in this way, confessing, preaching, or acting, is bound to obedience of the law of life which God Almighty Himself gave her in the generation and forming of the church.
And because Holy Scripture is nothing else than the pure and organic display of all the works, influences, words, powers, and messages which proceed from God to the world to bring the church to her birth for the world, therefore the church of Christ is thus durable among the nations, continually and irrevocably bound to that which Holy Scripture tells us in the generation, forming, and bearing of the church of God is her unchangeable form and law of life.
¹ Kuyper reveals in this last phrase his views that salvation comes in spire of the work of sin and of the devil. In this respect Kuyper was somewhat dualistic also in his theology. He proposed the idea that God and the devil are at war with each other, and that although God ultimately gains the victory, nevertheless it is in spite of the work of Satan. The Scriptures teach however that under God’s sovereign rule which is universal even sin, death and the devil must serve God’s purpose in Christ.
* Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:26, II Timothy 1:19, Ephesians 1:9, Titus 1:2, I Peter 1:20. It does not militate against this when our catechism confesses that God has gathered His church from the beginning of the world and when Jesus in Matthew 16:18 explains that He now shall build His church on this rock. By this only conception and birth are distinguished.
¹ This is a rather peculiar distinction which Kuyper here introduces. It would be perhaps better to maintain the distinction of Scripture found in Galatians 3:22-26 and Galatians 4:1-3. In this passage Paul makes the distinction between the Old Testament church as a child still under a schoolmaster and the New Testament church as a child who has come to maturity.