Where Are We Going – With the Kingdom? (2)

In this second article on the subject, Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan, continues his consideration of that much discussed concept—the kingdom. His aim is to clarify just what went wrong here, and also to point out how our thinking on this important matter can be gotten back in line with Scripture. To follow this contribution may require a bit of extra effort -but the results will prove to make that well worthwhile.

When a train was derailed in our city recently, all possible efforts were made to get it back on the track as soon as possible. To describe the wreck, as the newspapers did, was easy. To determine just what went wrong and to correct it and get the train running again was more difficult and took much longer. To try to prevent a recurrence—the Penn Central with its deteriorating trackage reportedly is having over one thousand such derailments a month might require a major overhaul of the whole line and be virtually impossible.


Dr. W. Aalders, a professor of the Hervormde (State) church in the Netherlands has written an analysis of what happened to the whole Reformed movement in the Netherlands under the title De Groote Ontsporing (The Great Derailment).

Because this is so closely related to our own problems as a Reformed community, some of Aalders’ observations are of extraordinary interest. They suggest some of the ways in which our own Reformed movement has been getting derailed and needs to be gotten back on the track.

The subtitle of Aalders little book is Concerning the Relationship of the Reformation to Modern Theology. The great theme which rules the modem church and its theology and which has produced a ferment or crisis in church life more serious than even that of the sixteenth century is “Christ and the World.” Aalders observed this theme first coming to the front in Reformed theology in an exchange of letters in 1833 and 1834 between Izaak Da Costa and H. F. Kohlbrugge regarding their differing views of sanctification. Da Costa accused the latter of failing to do justice to the reality of “the new man,” thankfulness, and godly and holy living (pp. 8, 9). He said in his Biibellezingen that the truths that flow from Christ’s work must become principles of life in the home, school, church, society, and state. The Christianity of the Bible must be the leaven that works its way into all possible spheres and overcomes them for Christ (p. 96).

Da Costa saw the new man, the new principle, Christ in us, as the germ of a real sanctification and therefore of the restoration of the world. In the Kingly Office of Christ lay the salvation of the wor1d (p. 9). Kohlbrugge criticized Da Costa for speaking too systematically of sanctification, for separating it from justification, and for separating Christ’s Kingly from His Priestly Office, thus making this sanctification, again a matter of law. Instead of being concerned with a Kingdom here he stressed it as heavenly.


This theme, “Christ and the World” was much more emphatically stressed by Abraham Kuyper who said, “No inch of the whole of social and political life may we withhold from Christ’s Kingship.” Kuyper worked out this theme in his Pro Rege, so that it became a political and social program and a cultural mandate. Christ as Head and King restores man’s original dominion over the earth. Regeneration is seen as a new germ or principle in man, the beginning of a process of organic growth producing sanctification of human life and culture.

The confession of Christ’s Kingship became for Kuyper the mobilization of all Christians to fight and to overcome the world for the Lord’s ordinances in all areas of life and so to re-Christianize all West European and American cultural life (pp. 11, 12).

Kuyper saw all this as a gradual historical process which governs all of our human life, our spiritual development to everlasting life as well as our human (p. 98). Aalders points out how Kuyper was trying to bring Reformed theology into rapport with nineteenth century thought. The pursuit of this ideal became the spiritual “derailment” that is the theme of Aalders’ book. Under its influence people recognized that there had been an essential change in the spiritual climate of the Reformed churches. What was being preached and written was no longer in the line of the earlier Reformed theology. It had been drawn not from the Bible but from speculative thought (p. 13). A disillusioned Herman Bavinck saw and deplored what was happening to the movement in which he was also a leading figure. In 1904 he wrote in an introduction to Erskine’s works, “It seems we no longer know what sin and grace, guilt and forgiveness, regeneration and conversion are. We know them in theory; but we no longer know them in the awful reality of life” (p. 15).

Aalders points out that the living Christ was being replaced by a speculative truth, a human thought-construct, a doctrinal rationalization. And so through Kuper’s speculative thinking about Christ’s Kingship, the Calvinistic people he led, in their struggle to set up the banner of Christ in every sphere of life, found themselves in an unspiritual political, social and economic power-struggle with fatal consequences. In striving for the Kingdom, they had lost the spiritual reality of the Kingship and rule of Christ as that is known through the working of His Word (p. 99).


All this, serious as it was, was only the beginning of the real storm concerning the theme “Christ and the World.” That really broke after World War II with Karl Barth at the center of it. In his earlier writings Barth, reacting against philosophical scholasticism and its objectivizing, eternalizing and secularizing of the Reformation, sounded like Martin Luther, and was widely hailed as a true follower of the Reformers.

In Barth’s Dogmatik it soon became dear that he was going off on a philosophical tangent of his own. Beginning with the historical revelation of the God-man in Christ, Barth in his “thinking faith” drew the universalistic conclusions that the world and all in it are reconciled whether they know it or not. The only difference between the church and the world then became that one knows and the other does not know about this reconciliation (p. 107). “Revelation was for Barth a changed world situation” (p. 113). And so “the sin and grace theology of Luther and Calvin was converted to a Kingdom-of-God theology.” The church broke out of its “ghetto” into the dynamic modern world. What was formerly considered the temptation to worldliness now became Christian duty (p. 24). With Bonhoeffer men must learn that the Bible is not concerned with eternal salvation in the hereafter but with the rule of God on earth (p. 25)., The church is “exclusively for others” and must help and serve the world, not convert it (p. 26). And so the church in this modern view must become the source of inspiration for art and science and also give leadership to the political, social, and economic life of the people. Its message must be the glad news of Jesus who brought man to adulthood to become God’s representative on earth. In solidarity with all men of good will the church is to be diligently busy making the abused earth into a paradise where we may all without discrimination of race or class, in peace and happiness, share and enjoy its fruits (p. 117).

This whole development, Aalders points out throughout his book, was really a complete break with and contradiction of the Gospel as Luther and the other Reformers (contrary to modern thinkers’ misinterpretation of the history) were mastered by it and subdued to the obedience of faith in it (pp. 32ff.). The Bible led Luther to see and experience justification by faith, not just as a doctrine to be believed, or as the content of the gospel, but as “the strait gate and the narrow way” which is the only entry to the reality of grace and the “mystery of the Kingdom” (p. 39). Recogni7Jng justification by faith as the only approach to the gospel, Luther confronted Erasmus, the most famous scholar of his age, not with academic discussion but with the demands of God’s Word and the prayer that God might enlighten him (p. 35). Luther regarded Erasmus, who tried to connect Word and world, faith and reason, as a stranger to justification, as one who didn’t know what faith is, a stranger to the Word-discovery of the Reformation and therefore to sin, wrath and judgment, and as a result naively optimistic regarding the world and history (p. 67). The only way out of the predicament of Erasmus, as of the whole modern world, is a return to the faith, to the preaching and life of the gospel.


How shall we evaluate Aalders’ description of what has been happening?

There are some rather obvious faults in his approach. Aalders’ constant pitting of the subjective and the experiential over against the objective and doctrinal in the Christian faith and life assumes a false antithesis or dualism—a kind of “subjectivism” that sets against each other what God’s Word puts together.

Instead of teaching us to oppose all “system” as Aalders and much of the modern world do, the Bible teaches that in our faith in Christ we are to “hold the pattern of sound words which thou hast heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee guard through the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us” (II Tim. 1:12–14). Notice that the fact that our faith must be so intensely personal does not exclude our regarding it as a “thing,” something “objective” as well as “subjective,” something to be guarded as a treasure as well as experienced as a power. It is no indefinable experience incapable of being systematically expressed in words and even propositions as the book of Romans, for example, demonstrates. Paul speaks of it in words, “not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual” (I Cor. 2:13).

Where in the Bible is the ground for Aalders’ claim (po 94) that “All God’s children have had to go through a fearful struggle before they found peace with God”? In this, Aalders tends to set up Luther’s experience with and resulting overwhelming emphasis on justification as the standard for Christian faith and life. He says very little about Calvin, Luther’s great successor, who was deeply concerned with systematically teaching “the whole counsel of God.” It seems to me that in this peculiar emphasis Aalders, the critic, shares in a measure the weakness of the modern movement he criticizes, the “existentialist” movement that discounts or denies all systematic doctrine, all “propositional” truth and moral laws (a characteristic weakness we have observed also in the AACS movement. See A. De Graaf’s essays in Understanding the Scriptures, for example).


Despite this weakness in Aalders’ own viewpoint, I cannot escape the conviction that his description of “the great derailment” of Reformed faith and life is essentially sound. Some of the most convincing testimony that Aalders is right in this appears in the writings of Abraham Kuyper himself.

In the February issue of THE OUTLOOK (pp. 2, 4) I pointed out how Kuyper in his preface to Pro Rege called attention to the serious weakness he observed and wanted to correct in the movement for all kinds of “Kingdom” enterprises. He saw men following “Christian principles” instead of being moved and controlled by Christ the King. Kuyper expressed the same kind of concern much more vigorously in his treatment of Lord’s Day XI of the Heidelberg Catechism (E Voto I, p. 262–4), which deals with the Name, Jesus:

Jesus wants nothing of all the praise and honor [of men] for the excellence of His person and ideas, with all admiration of the philosophers for the simplicity of His means to recreate mankind, and even with all profound learning regarding the key to world history which is in His cross. He was not for that and He did not come for that. He seeks sinners and will save His people from their sins. Accordingly, every movement in the church that has gone in for all kinds of scholarly culture and fine speculation has irretrievably run dead as a stream in the sand; and life has always returned to the church among the “children” and the “miserable” who by the light of the Spirit have learned to acknowledge themselves as lost sinners worthy of condemnation. In fact, the name Jesus breaks through all the fences of your imagination and pride and throws you down as a sinner in the dust. The name Jesus . . . reveals you to yourself as a cancerous creature in the very root of your life.

Christ docs not say that He does not bring well-being in an external way. But that other follows. That is not the starting point. That is not where He takes hold of you. What brings Him in contact with you and you with Him is exclusively the deep, bleeding wound in your heart. And anyone who does not want to face that has nothing to do with Jesus. He is completely outside of Him. For him no Jesus exists—that is, One who saves from sin.

From this fact results the deep division which now runs through the confessors of Christ, and also the sad fact that one finds among the confessors such a broad stream of men and women who are literally estranged from all real life of grace. O, they love the Savior; they are enthusiastic about Him; they can speak captivatingly and delightfully about Him; but it is all outside of the life of grace.

And so God’s people cannot tolerate their kind of preaching . . . It is not of Jesus. . the Savior from sin . . . If one still speaks to you of Him, then it is in a philosophical, speculative way, and therefore quite different from the way the Scriptures show you a poor and lost sinner that must be saved.

His name is Jesus, i.e., He saves His people from their sins. This makes no sense if it is intended to mean that gradually the whole world will be perfected by all kinds of sanctifying influences.

Jesus is a name that brings a separation among sinners . . . Some receive . . . others reject Him. The lift, of grace is among the first and distinguished from the life of the second. And that difference the philosophical confession of our century rejects. It wants no Jesus who saves from sins and even less a Jesus who saves His own people from their sins.

Could one find anywhere a more complete or more powerful confirmation of Aalders’ description of what has been happening than that of these words of A. Kuyper? One may question whether Aalders’ treatment has done justice to Kuyper whose own warnings, even in their language and details, are so similar to his own. But quite apart from any questions we may have about the differences between Aalders and Kuyper, what is much more important is that both of them warn in almost identical language against the kind of derailment and wreck the Reformed movement has been undergoing.

Facing the even more important questions as to what must be done to repair the damage and to get the Reformed enterprise back “on the track” and moving in the right direction, we hear both Aalders and Kuyper saying as emphatically as language can state it that the only help and hope is in the Reformation gospel of sin and grace, God’s gospel which captured and mastered Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers. It is the same gospel that transformed Peter the denier and Paul the persecutor into faithful and obedient proclaimers of the “testimony of God” (1 Cor. 2:1). That was and continues to be the Lord’s way of Reformation and Revival.


Facing that basic matter and doing so, I trust, with a large measure of agreement—as even Kuyper and Aalders secm obviously to agree—we are left with further questions about the rightness of what we might call the “Kingdom” vision as suggested by Da Costa and worked out by Kuyper, and as criticised by Kohlbrugge, Aalders, and many others present as well as past. What must we say regarding this old but still urgent problem?

Already as a teen-ager I read and was fascinated by Kuyper’s Stone Lectures on Calvinism with their attempt to outline a Christian approach to politics, science, art, etc. I recall already then wondering why the Bible said so little about this wonderful vision with its implications for all of life and why it devotes so much attention to such matters as the deeds and misdeeds of Israel and its kings. The Kuyper movement, and now even more explicitly, the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship (AACS) try to supply that deficiency.

The AACS leaders would supplement the old Bible with the contributions of what they call other’ “forms” of the Word of God, the creation-revelation as illuminated by modern science and the “inspired” insights of Christians today who are proclaiming this complete “Word of God” (See for example Hendrik Hart, The Challenge of Our Age, pp. 118, 119, “. . . God’s revelation is certainly not limited to that book. Nor is the inspiration of the Bible limited to it alone.” Cf. p. 130, notes 5, 6. Cf. also Vanguard, Jan.–Feb. 197, pp 5, 20, H. Hart, “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” “The New Testament child of God is in Christ authorized to speak as Paul did also when there is no chapter and verse in the Bible where He has thus revealed His will.”

As I have become older I believe that I begin to understand a little better the peculiar emphasis of the Bible. Instead of giving liS a treatise on Calvinism, it takes us through the long course and exposure of sin through centuries of history and leads us to the only remedy, the grace of God in Christ Jesus, to whom all the prophets bore witness. Whenever God’s people get detached from that, try to take off independently of it, the boxcar has broken loose from its engine and, freewheeling on its own, is headed for a wreck. The history of God’s people, in the Bible and since, is cluttered with such wrecks, some duly recorded to caution us against bad corners (I Cor. 10:11; Heb. 4:11) and the folly of Christians trying to negotiate them on their own.


Is there, then, really a place for the vision of the Stone Lectures? To the extent that it arises out of and is controlled and (as necessary) corrected by the gospel I am sure there is, and it is an important one. At the end of World War II one of the few books that I, at that time a Navy Chaplain, carried with me half way around the world to an assignment in the Philippines, was a copy of those Stone Lectures. After a meeting, a Christian sailor, a Lutheran, brought up a question that had been troubling him. He showed a good deal of talent as an artist and hoped after release from the service to seek that kind of career. What troubled him was the question how a Christian should serve the Lord as an artist. I invited him to my quonset hut and together we went over Kuyper’s lecture on “Calvinism and Art.” I pointed out that Calvinism really means just consistent Christianity. Although this was admittedly not one of Kuyper’s best pieces of work. it was a serious effort to face and help the Christian answer that sailor’s question, and he keenly appreciated it.

Does the Bible teach us to raise such questions? Of course it does. Luther, with his understandable but extreme preoccupation with the question, “How does the sinner get right with God?” said much less than Calvin and his successors about the question “How does the Lord want the saved sinner to live and serve Him when he is an artist?”

While we must necessarily follow the Apostle Paul in his determination “not to know anything” but “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2) and resolutely “cast down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against” that knowledge (II Cor. 10:5), we must not (as much of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. has done) interpret that knowledge of Christ more narrowly than the Bible does.

Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that in preaching “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” he “shrank not from declaring . . . anything that was profitable” and “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20, 21, 27). The Scripture to which Timothy and all other Christians must cling in the coming widespread apostasy, in making men “wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” gives “teaching . . . reproof . . . correction . . . instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:13–17). Also the Apostle Peter reminds us that the knowledge of Christ includes “all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3). The guidance which the Scriptures give us to this complete Christian faith and life is not limited to generalities and motives. It is spelled out in specific and unchanging commandments of God.

In this connection, we need to observe that the AACS movement despite its zeal for God’s kingdom rejects all specific commandments other than the principle of love. (Cf. A. DeGraaf, Understanding the Scriptures, p. 35, “None of them can be literally followed or applied today, for we live in a different period . . . .” H. Hart, Hope for the Family, p. 46, “There are no concrete rules or ways.”) Therefore it leaves those whom it urges on to Christian action without the guidance as to how the Lord has told us to act and confuses or misleads them toward the modem apostasy’s situational ethics. This modern attack on doctrine. all doctrine as definable, unchanging truth, is not just a development in the history of thought to which we must adapt ourselves and our faith. It is a further stage in man’s revolt against the God of truth and the truth of God. The Christian church must oppose it, not join it. Francis E. Schaeffer’s little book, Escape from Reason (pp. 77–79) properly warns us, “If evangelical Christians begin to … separate an encounter with Jesus from the content of the Scriptures (including the discussable and verifiable), we shall, without intending to, be throwing ourselves and the next generation into the millstream of the modern system.”

The Apostle Paul in his letters which he usually begins by presenting or recalling us to the life-giving doctrines of the gospel proceeds to point out the ways in which each Christian is to live in his and her particular responsibilities and relationships. Recall the counsel of I Corinthians 7 to single and married, to husbands and wives, and to masters and servants, and the similar and more detailed guidance of Ephesians 5:21–6:9 and Colossians 3:17–4:1. Of the same kind are also the directions given in Romans 12 and 13 and I Peter 2:13ff. On such matters as serving the Lord in one’s relationships to governments, etc.

The wrecks that have been encountered by many Christian enterprises which have gotten away from the Lord and His Word should certainly not become excuses for no Christian movement at all. They should prompt us rather in all we do to cling the more resolutely and earnestly to Him and to His Word. That is the way He tells us to work. And we must pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” He has given Reformation and Revival in the past. He may do it again. And whether He does or not, the King is coming. and His servants must be diligently serving Him when He comes.