Should the church “turn inward” when faced with cultural alienation?

5 Feb

When faced with cultural alienation, should the church turn inward? I’m not sure “turn inward” is exactly what non-Kuyperians advocate, although many in the Southern Presbyterian tradition, with its spirituality of the church, may accept that terminology in terms of the church as the institution (not Christians as individuals) go. I think DA Carson has a somewhat more modified view (a kind of, it depends on the circumstances approach), in his book Christ and Culture Revisited. Perhaps James Davidson Hunter’s has an alternate view in his book To Change the World. Of course, the Two-Kingdoms crowd offers a fairly stark contrast as well (see Michael Horton’s work and DG Hart’s book A Secular Faith).

David Koyzis and Jordan Ballor offer a Kuyperian answer, which is an emphatic NO.

KuyperDavid Koyzis has a thoughtful piece up overat First Things today, reflecting on the legacy of pillarization in the Netherlands in the generations following Abraham Kuyper. Discussing the challenges of post-war secularization, Koyzis writes, “A religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper’s followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly.”

Read Koyzis’ whole piece. In regards to his “turning inward” thesis, and his points about how “an unprecedented wave of prosperity would combine with the spiritual exhaustion that had set in after two world wars to produce a nihilistic consumerism largely indifferent, if not altogether hostile, to the traditional faiths,” I would recommend Ad de Bruijn’s recent piece in the Journal of Markets & Morality,“‘Colony of Heaven’: Abraham Kuyper’s Ecclesiology in the Twenty-First Century.”De Bruijn’s article can help flesh out some of the discontinuity between Kuyper’s own views regarding the church and society and how those who followed after him departed from, modified, or abandoned that tradition. De Bruijn also goes on to make some helpful applications for what Kuyper’s vision might mean in contemporary contexts.

This idea of “turning inward” is an important ecclesiological phenomenon, because this is a perennial temptation for Christian communities, particularly Protestant communions. Kuyper himself identified this problem as one that went all the way back to ancient Israel and was alive among the Anabaptists of his day. This was a vision of the church that maintained its purity by withdrawing from the surrounding world and culture. As Kuyper puts it in his work on common grace:

The gaze of the Lord is neither limited nor narrow but always large and wide, and even as he still summons the church of Christ to Christianize the whole world and all its nations in its missionary work, so too he shows us from of old how he himself seeks the world through Israel, even when Israel was segregated as shadow and type of what was to come, how he goes out to that whole world in love, and summons all nations to enter the kingdom of heaven. Of course, we are faced with the same danger as that to which Israel succumbed. Within the walls of the monastery there is relative safety; when it was completely isolated in the Babylonian captivity Israel did not succumb to idolatry, and when we close ourselves in and close ourselves off in a sectarian way, we are formally less susceptible to danger. We know very well the enchantment of every kind of particularism. But even that inviting appeal must never cause us to stray from the path of God’s holy ordinances. And those ordinances, including those that involve Israel, tell us clearly and plainly that our God claims nothing less than the world, and that the voice of him who calls goes out toall the nations.

One of the things I appreciate about Koyzis’ essay is that it doesn’t simply blame Kuyper for what happened after his death. Certainly Kuyper didn’t always live up to his own ideals and his actions and attitudes weren’t always consistent with his convictions. But on the question of the church’s posture toward the world, Kuyper most definitely opposed the turning inward of the church, and envisioned, if I may, a church intended “for the life of the world.”

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