“Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper”.
by P. J. Hoedemaker
Ruben Alvarado (Translator)
Pantocrator Press (2019)
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) rightly stands as a towering figure in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreover, he is known for key principles that have fashioned the nature of Reformed thought in Europe, Britain and North America and beyond. These principles we know as Neo-Calvinism, and they called for the Bible to be regarded as the foundation for the whole of life and for the Lordship of Christ to be understood as embracing all human endeavours and institutions. This was the reason and motivation for the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam (1880), where P. J. Hoedemaker and Abraham Kuyper served together.
The two men did not always see eye to eye, however. John Halsey Wood Jr in “Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper’s Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands”, describes much of the historical background to the dispute between Hoedemaker and Kuyper, and Kuyper’s new approach to the relationship of church and state. Now, in “Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper”, newly translated by Ruben Alvarado, we can see the disagreement directly. The author, P. J. Hoedemaker (1839-1910), whilst first a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, alongside Kuyper, later left the institution in protest at Kuyper’s exodus from the state church, the Dutch Reformed Church, to form the Gereformeerde Churches. Hoedemaker complained that this separation was a mistake and entailed a fundamental shift in views of the relation of church and state. Hoedemaker did believe that Kuyper had, in some way, compromised these principles by removing the section below from Article 36 of the Belgic Confession.
The disputed section in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561-2) was the paragraph on the role of Civil government,
And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.
Hoedemaker’s contention was that by removing this part of Article 36 and rejecting this role of the state in society, Kuyper, the champion of the antithesis, was actually advocating the neutrality of the state. Hoedemaker contended that the Reformed must not give up the fact that the civil magistrate is also to be governed by the Word of God, and it ought also to officially recognise the church, in their case the Dutch Reformed Church. Subsequent history in the Netherlands as shown the fruits of this “neutrality”, where secularism has become most hostile to the Christian Faith.
Furthermore, Hoedemaker’s complaint was that Kuyper had not grounded his change of view on Article 36 on scripture exegesis, but pragmatic considerations. This was a shift in political theory and showed Kuyper had allowed that principle of the Revolution (1789), the consent of the majority, to trump the authority of God and His Word. (23)
Kuyper, in his Stone Lectures at Princeton, had attributed Article 36 to a left-over form of medieval papalism and Constantinian Christendom, which was now to be shed by the Reformed. (39) The maturity of Reformed thought was now driving beyond this to a view of separation of church and state. But the affirmation of Article 36, Hoedemaker argued, did not negate “private judgment” in the handling and interpretation of Scripture, and the civil magistrate must also exercise in executing his task. There was no equality between Reformed Christianity and other religions and philosophies, but that did not mean that the state must become a persecutor of other views. Consequently, the public nature of the Faith entailed a national church as this would form the other institutions of society. Others are free to exercise their beliefs as long as they do not conspire to overthrow the Christian state. (64)
Hoedemaker complained in rejecting Article 36, Kuyper limited the visible church to the “church institute”. The visible church was manifested in the whole of a Christian society, including the state. On the other hand, Kuyper’s doctrine of the church as organism (invisible) and institution (visible) tended to reduce the visible church to a human association governed by the rules of human organisation alongside others (e.g., family, clubs).(42)
Hoedemaker asserted that Kuyper had assigned particular grace to the church and common grace to the state. (46) “Common grace finds its intended and direct embodiment in the civil state.” (Kuyper quoted on 84) But, this obscured the fact that the church had a ministry to the state, teaching the Word of God. To address this, Kuyper had to reduce the magistrate’s role to the practical functions of society, and thus the magistrate was restricted to the guidance derived from the natural knowledge of God (49), and not special revelation (52). The results were, whilst the magistrate was also under God, he was not under special revelation, because the magistrate did not possess the competence to handle special revelation, which can only come by special grace and regeneration. Consequently, the state was best to confine its work to the guidance found in the realm of natural revelation by common grace. Hoedemaker pointed out that this eroded the possibilities for a meaningfully Christian society, for as soon as there was the need to address , for example, sabbath laws, oath-taking, or the degree to which a society tolerates paganism, these were matters defined in special, not general revelation.
Hoedemaker claimed (72ff) Kuyper had compromised the perspicuity of Scripture. But the ability to understand the Scripture is two-fold. Resorting to Willemus a Brakel (76), Hoedemaker expounded a twofold view: a natural understanding that is available to all, and a spiritual understanding grounded in a regenerate heart that enables a true, spiritual and transformative faith. But this second understanding was not necessary to function in society, otherwise only the truly regenerate could constitute a fully Christian society. It is this more general shaping by Scripture that was to work its ways into the laws, customs and institutions of a nation.
Next, he addressed Kuyper on the sufficiency of Scripture. (78ff) Hoedemaker accused Kuyper of using his doctrine of common grace to drive a sharp distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Here was Hoedemaker’s explanation of sufficiency: the Reformed “maintained that everything that was necessary to know, not only for salvation, but also to understand nature and life, both in this world and the coming one, could be found in Scripture.” (81) By this Hoedemaker did not mean that Scripture is the source-book for the sciences, or government, but instead of “the basic concepts that rule the sciences”.
At this point we must note that, strictly speaking, there is a duel level sufficiency here: in matters of theology, the true knowledge of God and salvation, Scripture is the complete and sufficient source of all doctrine. However, in the wider fields of life, the Scripture provides only the foundation concepts. Hoedemaker did make clear that there was a full sufficiency and a narrower sufficiency for the other domains of knowledge where man must discover the content of their knowledge from creation and providence. Scripture helps us unravel nature, it does not replace it. (83)
This leads to Hoedemaker’s final point. The common grace doctrine, as positioned by Kuyper, confined the state to the realm of natural knowledge of God, not special revelation. But the state was defined in special revelation in Genesis 9. Hoedemaker added that natural and special revelation were not two separate spheres of knowledge, but two revelations of the same knowledge of God, but that special revelation was the more complete and final form. Hoedemaker feared that in cutting the state loose from scripture, it would lead to the secularisation of society, under a spurious doctrine of neutrality.
Hoedemaker’s statement of course leaves many questions open. We might say that this national church position was all very well, but what happens when the national church becomes liberal and apostate? Or, if there comes a point where congregations and ministers are forced out of the national church, then is not a free church model inevitable? I suspect that Hoedemaker might reply, “but there is no need to give up Article 36! This is still the scriptural teaching!” Hoedemaker’s bone of contention was the change in theology that Kuyper promoted, as much as his exit from the state church based on that change of perspective.
Readers may enjoy John Halsey Wood Jr, “Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper’s Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (Oxford)”