Reformed or Just Conservative?

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, May 1st 2012
May/Jun 2012

Abraham Kuyper spoke of the danger of a moribund conservatism in his own movement: the separation from the national Reformed Church in the Netherlands. In a sermon preached in Utrecht in 1870, Kuyper complained that a generic conservatism had replaced a genuine Reformed impulse in the church.

Gradually recovering from a befuddled spirituality that vaporizes everything, people have ever more insistently called for the appearance of a Christianity with firm forms, and through a threefold struggle involving church elections, church property, and churchly baptism, the demand has been put with mounting urgency to our ecclesiastical apparatus either to give us back a church of Christ or to dissolve and so to
disappear from the scene. (67) (1)

Kuyper referred to the Reformation where Christians returned to the source of Scripture in the face of struggle and suffering. We are called to hold onto what we have. "Hold on to it, but not in the spirit of a killing conservatism which, under the motto of 'safe and sound,' causes life to wither. This fallacious preservation has nothing in common with the true sort. Conservatism and orthodoxy, terms which are often confused, need to be most sharply distinguished today" (67).

Like Paul, Kuyper saw the source of the church's life in the gospel itself. "Christianity came to save. Salvation is the hope-giving word that it unfurls on its banner. Precisely as a power of salvation it militates against destruction" (67). It renews rather than obliterates nature. "Precisely because it seeks to save, Christianity detests a false conservatism that adorns itself with the name of Christianity but is devoid of its power. Who would save the sick by keeping the patient in the status quo? He will die before your eyes, with your false conservatism responsible for his death. To be conservative in that sense, to preserve in that sense, is to block Christianity from pursuing its goal. In a world of sin, that which is cannot remain as it is" (71).

It is true that a false progressivism closes its eyes to the past, but false conservatism falls into the opposite error: "Quenching life, we find our peace solely in the past" (72). This type of conservatism tries merely to hold on to the "ever-diminishing influence still left to us" from our forebears (72). This is an exercise in "repristination": the mere repetition of past utterances as if this could magically preserve the truth for the next generation. Advocates of this approach alternate between triumphalism and despair.

They force themselves outside of their own time at the cost of having any influence on the life that surrounds them. In the end they turn against their own brothers, fragmenting even more the little power that remains. Worst of all, their own spiritual life has to suffer, and as a result of continual disappointment, the grave of their dearest wishes must become the grave of their faith itself. No, you men who honor the fathers: first seek to have for yourself the life your fathers had and then hold fast what you have. Then articulate that life in your own language as they did in theirs. Struggle as they did to pump that life into the arteries of the life of our church and society. Then not being a dead form but a living fellowship will unite you with them, faith will be a power in your own life, and your building project will reach complete success. (74)

Kuyper recalls the decline of many within his own circle toward false conservatism. First, they singled out a few slogans. "To save that, not to ask for more; to take a firm stand for that, not to reach for more, became the slogan of these folks. They venture not to create anything new; the old they cannot call back; what else can they do, then, but devote all their love to what has been preserved, firmly resolved to strike back every hand reaching out to rob them of that jewel?" (74).

New demands came, but these churches were not ready to meet them, for they did not even understand’and did not try to understand’them.

Then everyone began to swear by his own slogans and wander down his own paths, and all too cruelly the carefree circle of brothers had to pay the penalty for opting to be a circle of friends rather than a church. People now discovered that for public life spiritual affinity is not enough; one needs the bond of a confession.’¦"Hold fast to what you have" was still the rallying cry, but what people had in Christ remained uncertain for the heart and undecided for the mind.’¦From that moment on a nervous scrupulosity hindered every step; mutual distrust blocked every demonstration of power. People were doomed to inaction. They kept gliding over the surface, fearing that if they immersed themselves more deeply they would drown. And so, internally divided, now swinging one way, now another, they could not stand firm, much less show a character that compelled respect from the enemy.’¦Neither was there any power in it.’¦Not, beloved, it is not the frozen waters but the foaming streams which carry life and bring salvation! (75)

A false conservatism, therefore, does not really take a stand. It threatens "this far and no further," but when that boundary is crossed, it takes a step back and repeats the threat.

First it was the attempt to uphold the Confession. When that was lost, people were prepared to hold the line on Scripture. When that was lost, some six fundamental truths would serve as our shibboleths. When that too proved untenable, people were prepared at least to stand by the miracles. In the end they also surrendered those forward trenches and made the Resurrection of Christ the breastwork of Christianity, but that too was lost. Today the adversary has already laid hands on our Baptism‘but people get used to everything and they still have not found "the formula for resistance." Thus the line of defense was shrunk again and again. (76)

In the conservative movement Kuyper discerned "no swimming against the current" in the totality of Christian faith and practice (76). "True: there is still a semblance of unity but it will last only as long as it pleases the enemy to unite us by his opposition" (78).

The gospel, however, is not a series of "beautiful ideas." Rather, it "strikes its roots into existing reality by a series of mighty acts. It is after all a historical phenomenon." The church lives in the power of these historical acts of God in Jesus Christ. This means, says Kuyper, that the church cannot exist in the present, much less extend into the future, without going through the past that creates it. For that reason, we must indeed preserve the past, but we cannot return to it or recreate it. Instead, "the past lives on in the present.’¦The centuries are not juxtaposed to each other as airtight compartments; what was then works on now. The miraculous historical facts by which Christianity was begun have impregnated succeeding centuries with their power" (79).

It is not by nostalgia for a supposedly golden age (even the Reformation), but by returning to the founding events of Christ's saving work that each generation can experience the liberating power of the gospel for its own time and place. A false conservatism holds onto reality "as it is." "True conservatism seeks to preserve what is in terms of what it will become in Christ, that is, resurrected from the dead." Against all forms of salvation by human effort, "the battle for the Bible must necessarily end in suicide if it does not unconditionally yield to the Word of God and open its eyes to the totally unprecedented, totally other new life of which that Word shows us the beginning, the substance, and the final goal, the life whose typical patterns and movements it portrays for us, and for whose recognition it offers the only genuine touchstone" (80’81).

Modernism is radical, pioneering, and utterly destitute of the Word of God that brings genuine life. False conservatism, however, is lazy and shallow and is content merely to hold on to remnants of its shattered heritage.

[Genuine Christianity] must be concerned to keep not just a few blossoms that have budded on the plant but the plant itself. The plant must be preserved not on the assumption that our hands must create the ripe fruit and then tie it to the branches but in the firm belief that the plant already contains that fullness of fruit within. It must hold on to Christ not merely to maintain a distinct life, not only as the absolute principle of that life, but equally as the Eternal One in whom the fullness of that life is already present, also for yourselves. Orthodoxy is unfaithful to that eternal principle if it shrinks from saying, as our fathers did, that in Christ we already have everything and need not first acquire it. (81)

To be sure, genuine orthodoxy is continuous with the faith of our fathers and mothers in Christ. "Still it is our calling to hold fast what we have in Christ in our own time, not in theirs.’¦That labor is enormous, Congregation, especially where so much of it has been neglected" (82). It is an orthodoxy that refuses a dead repetition of dull routine, but asks what it believes and why it believes it. It returns to the source of its life, not only for the church's sake, but also for the benefit of the world.

Kuyper concluded this final sermon to his Utrecht congregation, "Do not bury our splendid orthodoxy in the treacherous pit of false conservatism.’¦And now, Congregation, before I pronounce the Amen, receive my final 'Farewell.' May the Lord never take away the candlestick He so marvelously gave you, but may His light shine from it ever more brightly" (85).

Are we conservative or Reformed? Although many of his criticisms are based on caricatures, Brian McLaren correctly presses us to answer the questions: "So what happens when Protestants get tired of protesting? What happens when they want to protest their own protesting? If they simply form another elite sect that protests Protestant protesting, they're still stuck in the cycle, doomed to become the next Protestant sideshow, super-Protestants, nothing more. Is there an alternative?" (2) In an interview, the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan famously said,

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. (3)

Our calling is not to simply repeat slogans but to clarify and, on the basis of Scripture, at times even modify our understanding and practice in order to achieve greater precision in teaching and obeying God's Word faithfully.

The past is not necessarily weighty because it is past. Arianism, Pelagianism, and other heresies also have an ancient pedigree. Rather, it is to the living stream of God's Word that we step in the present, as did our forebears, to be washed from the accumulated superstitions and lies of our own time and place. False conservatism cannot even sustain its own irrelevant existence. Without a confessional consciousness and a confessing heart, the disintegration of a clear common enemy gives way to sectarian rivalry.

Churches today stand in need of a new reformation. There is no need to rehash the statistics here. Evangelicalism in the United States is plagued by ignorance of Scripture and confusion concerning the nature of the human plight and its solution in the gospel. Worship, church life, and outreach are determined by the whim of the market, just as the Word was buried under medieval innovations.

At the same time, many confessional churches seem content to live off of the capital of the past, without having to return for themselves to the streams that fed the great renewals of apostolic faith and practice in the past. It is not enough to invoke the slogans of the Reformation and to settle for the pristine confession of "the five points of Calvinism." We need to recover the fullness of biblical faith and practice in our own time and place. Like children, we need to ask anew even the most basic questions, in the light of the specific challenges and opportunities in our own age. We are not caretakers of a cemetery or guardians of a heritage, but ambassadors of the ever-living and ever-active King in heaven, sent into our families, neighborhoods, and nations with the life-giving message of Christ. We cannot take this inheritance for granted. It is not merely a treasure to be guarded, but to be put on display each week, shared among the saints, and distributed to a world that lies under the domain of sin and death.

1 [ Back ] All Kuyper quotes from Abraham Kuyper, "Conservatism and Orthodoxy: False and True Preservation," in John Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
2 [ Back ] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 127.
3 [ Back ] Jaroslav Pelikan, interviewed in U.S. News & World Report (26 July 1989), 25.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, May 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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