Religious Liberty Without Liberalism

Abraham Kuyper, the Invisible Church, and Religious Establishments

Early Protestant politics, according to Abraham Kuyper in his famous lecture “Calvinism and Politics,” was in many ways a product of the Middle Ages, exemplified “in an article of our old Calvinistic Confession of Faith [which] entrusts to the State the task ‘of defending against and of extirpating every form of idolatry and false religion and to protect the sacred service of the Church.’ . . . [and] in the unanimous and uniform advice of Calvin and his epigones, who demanded intervention of the government in the matter of religion.”1. It was indeed a relatively straightforward carrying over of the basic Constantinian settlement which brought “differences in religious matters under the criminal jurisdiction of the government” based on the conviction that there “was only one Church of Christ on earth, and it was the task of the Magistrate to protect that Church from schisms, heresies and sects.”2 Calvin’s view on this is stated succinctly in the Institutes:

[T]o the [civil magistrate] it is assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church . . . .3

In this system, the state has a responsibility to protect and enforce the whole system of the true religion against all competitors. In such a scheme religious liberty is impossible. It would not even have been comprehensible, much less desired, even if it had it been an option at the time.

Religious liberty, however, is seen as one of the chief blessings of the modern world, at least in those nations that are heirs of traditions stretching back to the Enlightenment. Christians since that time, however, have argued for a variety of positions on religious liberty, many of which are not founded on explicitly Enlightenment foundations. Most such arguments are based primarily on a conviction about the dangers to the church when the state has power to regulate the church’s internal affairs and doctrine, rather than a fear about illegitimate influence from the church on the state. Such arguments—in distinction from ones derived primarily from the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment—make an argument from Scripture, whether it is the correct one or not. This is how it should be: if religious liberty is worth preserving, it is worth preserving on explicitly Christian grounds.

This is where Kuyper’s argument is particularly interesting. He, too, makes an argument for (limited) religious liberty on explicitly theological grounds. He argues on the basis of a central point of Reformed theology, even as he attempts to show that the essentially Constantinian vision of the Reformation regarding the state was partially mistaken. In so doing he argues for a form of religious liberty different from that offered by many Christians today. It may very well be a position that retains some of the beneficial aspects of classic Protestant political thought, while at the same time providing a more realistic vision of religious liberty for the modern world than a straightforward application of the earliest Reformed theology would allow. At the very least it could serve as a springboard for further discussion in this area.

It is the doctrine of the invisible church that Kuyper understands as necessitating a reformulation of the medieval relationship of church and state. If one accepts, as even the earliest Reformed theologians did, “that the Church of Christ can reveal itself in many forms, in different countries; nay, even in the same country, in a multiplicity of institutions” then “immediately everything which was deduced from this unity of the visible church drops out of sight.”4 That is to say, there is not necessarily only one institutional manifestation of the church in a given nation. A core conviction of the Reformed churches is that the visible church is always more or less pure, and that not everyone in it is chosen for salvation in God’s eternal counsel. Therefore, there is an “invisible church” within the visible.5

Kuyper insists, then, that since

in Calvinistic countries a rich variety of all manner of church-formations revealed itself . . . it follows that we must not seek the true Calvinistic characteristic in what, for a time, it has retained of the old [medieval] system, but rather in that, which, new and fresh, has sprung up from its own root. . . . With Rome the system of persecution issued from the identification of the visible with the invisible Church, and from this dangerous line Calvin departed.”6

In other words, once you accept (as Reformed Protestants did) that it was possible to have more than one genuine expression of the church within a single state the basis for attempting to maintain only one church by the power of the sword disappears.

One might then expect that Kuyper would follow the line of classical liberalism and oppose a forthright public expression of Christian truth, that he would simply argue for a neutral public square. But of course Kuyper is famous for rejecting this very thing: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”7

In fact, civil magistrates, Kuyper argues

are and remain ‘God’s servants.’ They have to recognize God as Supreme Ruler, from Whom they derive their power. They have to serve God, by ruling the people according to His ordinances. They have to restrain blasphemy, where it directly assumes the character of an affront to the Divine Majesty. And God’s supremacy is to be recognized by confessing His name in the Constitution as the Source of all political power, by maintaining the Sabbath, by proclaiming days of prayer and thanksgiving, and by invoking His Divine blessing.8

This is a far cry from the philosophy of classical liberalism and its dreams of a neutral public square. And Kuyper writes (in 1898) as if such a robust view of Christianity’s influence on the state would not be especially controversial in either America or the Netherlands. And indeed it was not.

And yet, despite his argument in favor of a public and political expression of Christianity, he asks:

is it the duty of the government to suspend its own judgment and to consider the multiform complex of all these denominations as the totality of the manifestation of the Church of Christ on earth?9

His answer?

From a Calvinistic standpoint we must decide in favor of [this] suggestion. Not from a false idea of neutrality, nor as if Calvinism could ever be indifferent to what is true and what false, but because the government lacks the data of judgment, and because every magisterial judgment here infringes the sovereignty of the Church.10

Kuyper does not argue that the state should, or even can, be neutral with regard to the claims of truth, including divine truth. His argument is not primarily even about the responsibility of the state; it is about the rights of the church. Since the state is not competent to make precise determinations about theology, nor does it even have the divine authority to do so, it must grant a basic tolerance to all Christian churches. No doubt determining what constitutes the acceptable bounds of truly Christian denominations might seem to be a difficulty for this proposition, but it is to Kuyper’s mind the lesser of two evils, the greater being the never-ending, violent struggles for ecclesiastical supremacy among various Christian denominations within a single state.

Changes in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith between its original promulgation in 1647 and the revisions made in 1788 by the first American Presbyterian church reveal a similar shift in perspective as Kuyper’s away from the medieval consensus. In the 1647 article on the civil magistrate (23.3) we read that, although it must not interfere in internal church governance, the civil magistrate

hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

In the 1788 American revision this article is wholly rewritten. It maintains that the magistrate may not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith.” That said, the revisions, just like Kuyper’s position, most certainly do not argue for religious or moral neutrality—on liberal, or any other, grounds. The article insists, for example, that

it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

Although Kuyper adds the theological rational of the doctrine of the invisible church, the America revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith on this point are indeed quite similar to Kuyper’s position: the state should protect the church, but should not attempt to elevate one single denominational expression to supremacy, thus necessitating the suppression of others, as was attempted, for example under the Roman Catholic and Lutheran system of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, their religion”).11 Kuyper perhaps goes further than the revised Confession in his insistence that the magistrate must rule according to God’s ordinances, silence blasphemy12, maintain the Sabbath, explicitly acknowledge dependence on God, and so on, all of which would (surprisingly to many) have been largely uncontroversial at that point in American history. But Kuyper and the revised Confession agree that the state must protect the Christian churches in a nation. This is a form of non-absolutist religious liberty, in contrast to those who insist that religious liberty can only exist when no religious expression is forbidden.

But the classically liberal dream of universal peace by means of neutrality regarding religion is an unreal fantasy. History has borne this out, which should not surprise Christians. God did not make us to be neutral with regard to truth. We will either be partisans of what is actually true, or of what we think is true. A substantial understanding of justice of some sort will prevail. The question is merely “which one?”

Abraham Kuyper offers one non-liberal route for the state to organize itself in a way that is supportive of the basic truths of the divinely ordained natural law within a system that is more tolerant of diversity than the Constantinian settlement. Kuyper is certainly not infallible, but I would argue that such an approach is more likely to gain traction in America today than a call for a return to older forms of religious establishmentarianism. It also avoids the destructive pseudo-neutrality of modern secularist absolutism, which tolerates drag queens twerking in public schools, chemical and surgical castration of minors, and the murder of babies in the womb, while forbidding any public acknowledgment of the one true God and his moral law, the only source of goodness, truth, beauty, and justice in the world.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

  1. Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism and Politics,” in Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), p. 99.
  2. Kuyper, “Calvinism and Politics,” pp. 100-1.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.20.2 (Henry Beveridge translation).
  4. “Calvinism and Politics,” p. 101.
  5. This is not the place to get into the details of the doctrine of the invisible church. Suffice it to say, that while it is a biblical doctrine, it certainly could be abused if used to support the idea that one does not have obligations to a visible manifestation of the church, doesn’t need to attend services of worship in person, partake of the sacraments physically, and so on. Those, however, are not actual implications of the doctrine of the invisible church, which exists primarily to indicate that the visible church is never wholly pure in this age.
  6. “Calvinism and Politics,” p. 101-3.
  7. Which is an English translation of a Dutch phrase from Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring (Kok: Kampen, 3rd ed., 1930), p. 33. See Roger Henderson, “Kuyper’s Inch,” Pro Rege 36/3 (March 2008), pp. 12-14.
  8. “Calvinism and Politics,” p. 103.
  9. “Calvinism and Politics,” p. 105.
  10. “Calvinism and Politics,” p. 105.
  11. Even when individual American states had established churches they were never established with the same level of rigor or oversight as in medieval and early Reformational Europe.
  12. Although only “when the intention is apparent contumaciously to affront (the) majesty of God as Supreme Ruler of the State.” (“Calvinism and Politics,” p. 103).

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Ben C. Dunson is the Editor-in-Chief of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.