The Christian Life between Accommodation and Isolation
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The Christian Life between Accommodation and Isolation

Kuyper BavinckIn this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Soul of the System,” I examine a number of images and distinctions related to Hunter Baker’s latest book, The System Has a Soul. In describing Herman Bavinck’s images of the kingdom of God as a pearl and a leaven, and a complementary distinction from Abraham Kuyper of the church as an institute and an organism, a question naturally follows about the relationship between each element of the pairings.

As with any distinction of this kind, there is danger in emphasizing one at the expense of the other. A common criticism of Kuyper’s distinction, at least as it played out among some of the later neo-Calvinists, is that the significance of the institutional church was relativized, even to the extent of disappearance, in the enthusiasm for the Christian’s transformational calling in the world. A helpful piece by David Koyzis in Comment some years back (“A Neocalvinist Ecclesiology,” alas unavailable digitally) attempts to refute some of these criticisms, at least as they apply to the inherent logic of neo-Calvinism in a Dooyeweerdian key. Likewise Nelson Kloosterman delineates the relationship between the church as an institutional “sphere” and the other realms of human life in Kuyper’s thought. And yet there is, I think and as I have written elsewhere, some warrant for the concern that conflating the callings of “ministers” and “muck farmers,” for instance, tends to improperly value the unique role and significance of the institutional church.

For Kuyper and Bavinck, however, there is also a danger in overemphasizing the church in its institutional reality at the expense of the living faith of the Christian calling in the world. This danger is represented in different ways by the errors of clericalism and pietism. As John Bolt rightly points out, for Bavinck “the kingdom is a pearl first and foremost and a leaven secondarily.” There is a redemptive priority for this understanding that cannot be ignored without problematic results. But if you miss the corresponding importance of the leavening aspect of the kingdom, you run dangerously close to misunderstanding the purpose of the pearl in the first place. Thus, writes Bavinck,

Faith appears to be great, indeed, when a person renounces all and shuts himself up in isolation. But even greater, it seems to me, is the faith of the person who, while keeping the kingdom of heaven as a treasure, at the same time brings it out into the world as a leaven, certain that He who is for us is greater than he who is against us and that He is able to preserve us from evil even in the midst of the world.

Kuyper emphasizes the proper understanding of the relationship between special and common grace in complementary way as well. In his work on Common Grace, Kuyper writes that the pearl (to use Bavinck’s biblical image) is given for the redemption and the flourishing of the whole world. Thus “the coming of Christ into this world means automatically that he has come to all of humanity, to all that bears the name human, not to Israel but to the nations, and this is so because he has taken on our human nature and our human flesh.” Kuyper is clear that he means this not in any universalistic redemptive sense, but rather referring to redemption and renewal on a cosmic scale. It is in fact a misunderstanding of Israel’s role among the nations that leads to the pietistic errors of isolationism.

In this way a proper balance and understanding of the relationship between the gospel as a pearl and a leaven, the church as an institution and an organism, and between special and common grace can help us to avoid the extremes of cultural accommodation (and ultimately apostasy) and isolation (and ultimately hypocrisy).

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.