What We Believe

Of the ministers who founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Rienk Bouke (“R. B.”) Kuiper (1886–1966) is among the least familiar to Orthodox Presbyterians today. The Dutch immigrant studied at Princeton Seminary and served seventeen years in pastoral ministry (in the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America) before joining the OPC and excelling as a teacher of preachers at Westminster Theological Seminary for two decades. He also enjoyed tenures as president of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.

As his biographer and son-in-law Edward Heerema noted, retirement was a remarkably productive time during which Kuiper penned five books. The most popular (and his “masterpiece,” according to John Murray), was a comprehensive study of the doctrine of the church, The Glorious Body of Christ, published by Eerdmans in 1958. Organized in fifty-three short chapters that originally appeared as a series in the Presbyterian Guardian from 1947 to 1952, the book contains considered reflections on the church from Kuiper’s long and distinguished service from the pulpit and the lectern.

Attributes of the Church

Glorious Body begins by affirming the four attributes of the church according to the Nicene Creed: its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Kuiper notes that a proper understanding of these terms is hampered by their frequent misuse. For example, denominationalism is often cited as an impediment to church unity. While Kuiper decries sectarian extremism in some denominations, he goes on to observe the irony that the “most striking example” of this extreme are the anti-denominational impulses in many independently minded churches. Catholicity can be defined too narrowly (as in Roman Catholicism) or too broadly (in the modern ecumenical movement). The “multiformity” of the church “has been used to cover a multitude of sins” by harboring heresies (43). But so too can an ill-defined unionism breed an indifference to the truth (48).

To these four Nicene attributes he adds three more notes. The first is the illumination of the church, which, rightly understood, must be set apart from Roman Catholic claims of infallibility and Radical Reformation denials of any role of the church in shaping biblical interpretation. The second will surprise some readers: Kuiper affirms the progressiveness of the church, albeit not in the sense championed by theological modernists of his age nor progressive Christian movements of our time. Rather, it is decidedly a progress in the truth: the church should expect to grow in its understanding of the riches of God’s Word. The alternative is petrification, and “complacency is a most heinous sin in any church” (85). Third, the church is indestructible. Because of God’s faithfulness to his promises, “it is certain that God will at all times have a covenant people, a church, on earth” (90).

From these ecclesiological foundations, Kuiper turns to the organization of the church, where he affirms the principles of Presbyterian polity. The church is neither a democracy (as Congregationalists claim) nor a hierarchy (as expressed in forms of prelacy); it is a divine monarchy. Christ rules through the general office of members (here Kuiper cites Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 32 to demonstrate that all Christians are anointed to prophethood, priesthood, and kingship) and through special offices of minister, elder, and deacon, to whom members must submit in the Lord.

Retaining the Glory of the Church

The balance of the book is a thorough review of the practices of the church. Six chapters are devoted to the supreme task of the church, the preaching of the Word, followed by a survey of the ministries of discipleship, evangelism, and Christian education. Throughout, Kuiper focuses on the attribute found in the title of his book—the glory of the church. Though the church is the object of the world’s scorn, the glory of the church is ever present and remains visible through the eyes of faith. Many chapters end with observations on how the topic under consideration particularly displays that glory. Faithful ministers “enhance the glory of Christ’s church” (142). Evangelism is a “most glorious” prerogative of the church (242). The diversity of the church contributes to its glory (100), whereas narrowness, prejudice, and bigotry obscure that glory (65). And because Christ is the head and king of his church, it “cannot but partake of his glory” (91). At times Kuiper seems to pause in doxological reflection, inviting the reader simply to marvel at the church’s glorious character (see, for example, 94, 96, 348).

But has the glory departed from Reformed churches today? This is a question to which Kuiper devotes sustained attention. “Indestructibility” does not provide license for presumption on the part of congregations or denominations. Rather, Kuiper warns how easy it is for the glory of the church to depart. While we can expect the world to mock the church, Kuiper laments that “even some Christians are wont to belittle it” (237). Churches that chase worldly measurements of prestige and honor only “evince vainglory” (30). A particular temptation of Reformed churches today is to go beyond the mandate to minister and declare the Word of God. “If the church attempts to be something else than the church, it denies itself and detracts from its own glory. If it is satisfied to be the church, its glory will shine forth” (169).

A recurring call in the book is for the church to display “the rare virtue of theological balance” in its life and witness (228). It is important to affirm that the church is both an organism and an organization, and later he argues that the church must commit itself both to ministries of Christian nurture and evangelism. Balance in these matters will “greatly enhance the glory of the church” (162). But calls for balance have been misused. Kuiper regrets that, often in an appeal for balance, ecclesiastical pacifism becomes a higher concern than the truth of God’s Word, inviting into the church the cancer of doctrinal indifference (105). In Heerema’s words, Kuiper “detested” church leaders who refused to take a stand for the truth of God’s Word, which only served to substitute a false peace for a true peace.

Reformed believers today may particularly struggle to see the glory of the church in its militancy. Yet Kuiper writes, “the church on earth is glorious, not in spite of its militancy, but precisely because of it” (33). Later he argues that militance demands an antithesis between the church and the world. But even here, Kuiper drew a vital qualification. There are forbidden and required forms of separation from the world. A physical separation is a fundamentalist worldly escape, but Scripture calls for a spiritual separation. “He who strives,” Kuiper warned, “to escape from his earthly surroundings easily forgets that he is carrying the world about with him in his heart. In consequence world flight frequently results in worldliness of the worst kind” (268).

In another book that he wrote during this time, Kuiper warned that the Reformed church “must refuse steadfastly to sell even a portion of its Reformed heritage” (To Be or Not to Be Reformed?, 9). By this, he underscores that the church stewards that heritage in both its doctrine and practice. In Glorious Body, he anticipates that churches will be particularly prone to abandon distinctively Reformed worship. “By and large,” he lamented, people go to church today “to be tranquilized. … [T]hat the glory of God is both the beginning and end of common worship does not seem to occur to them” (14).

John Murray noted that Kuiper’s preaching and writing were “always characterized by clarity and simplicity” (foreword to Kuiper’s The Bible Tells Us So, 1968). In addition, one can detect in Glorious Body a boldness that is absent in much writing about the church today. Expressions such as “most certainly,” “indisputably,” and “there cannot be the slightest doubt” appear frequently in Kuiper’s prose. Moreover, an alert reader will detect—often between the lines—the ecclesiastical struggles that he fought throughout his distinguished career. In his labors in three denominations, Kuiper witnessed at close range the challenges that modern American culture presented to the church.

Though originally written for a popular audience, The Glorious Body of Christ is a rich account of Reformed ecclesiology that became a staple in seminary curricula for decades. In the words of one reviewer, the book “breathes the spirit of devout conviction and ripe, Christian maturity.” Thanks to Banner of Truth Trust, the book remains in print, and it continues to be a profitable read. OPC congregations would do well to use the book in adult Sunday school and officer training.

The author is a professor at RTS-Orlando and a ruling elder at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida.New Horizons, October 2021.

New Horizons: October 2021

Respite for Weary Souls

Also in this issue

Respite for Weary Souls: Machen on the Church

A Biblical Doctrine of the Church: Edmund P. Clowney

The Church’s Power: James Bannerman

"Not a Visible Society": Charles Hodge

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