Hoedemaker and Ecumenism

In a recent episode of the Civitas Podcast, James Wood, Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Canada, introduces us to Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker, a minister of the Dutch Reformed church and contemporary of Abraham Kuyper. Wood’s interlocutor, Peter Leithart, urges him on in this – “Introduce him to people who don’t know him, like me” – because “I didn’t know him.”[1] It is satisfying to see Hoedemaker finally receive the attention he deserves. As he himself suspected, his message would not resonate until long after he had passed.[2]

In the podcast, Wood provides an outline of an article of his, recently published in Ad Fontes, entitled “How Abraham Kuyper Lost the Nation and Sidelined the Church.”[3] This article provides an incisive summary of the core points of Hoedemaker’s message regarding religion and public life, church, state, and nation. These revolve around the need to recognize the public role of the church as the expounder of God’s Word to the nation and to the civil magistrate. This public (as opposed to magisterial) role of the church[4] stands foursquare in opposition to classical liberalism’s (e.g., Kuyper’s) notion of “the free church in a free state” by which the church is privatized and converted into a voluntary association. This is a recipe for disaster, says Hoedemaker, for it posits the neutral state, which is an impossibility, for there is no neutrality. The state must choose its source of law and authority, and if that is not in the revealed God of Scripture, it will be in autonomous man, with all the consequences that entails.

So far, so good. But in his published article, Wood refers to elements in Hoedemaker’s “project” which leave him puzzled. As he writes, “Hoedemaker is somewhat confusing with his constant statements about how the state does not recognize any particular ecclesiastical institution, but that it must recognize a visible church.”

The first part of this concern can be disposed of rather quickly. These statements of Hoedemaker’s are directly related to the form taken by Kuyper’s original critique.

In the series on Common Grace, Kuyper makes the following argument:  “And now we put to those who wish to maintain Article 36 unchanged – and they lack any right to participate further, as long as they have not answered it pertinently and conclusively – this question, dominating the whole dispute: How should the magistrate, if he finds more than one visible church on his terrain, decide which among the many is the only true one?” (De Gemeene Gratie, vol. III, p. 249).

It is thus Article 36 of the Belgic Confession that Kuyper is criticizing, and his criticism revolves around the necessity it purportedly imposes to select one church institute as the only true one. This indicates to us the reason Hoedemaker makes these statements. It is simply because he is anxious to make clear that Article 36 says nothing about such a necessity! It tells the magistrate to defend and protect and promote the true religion, not any church institute![5] But as Hoedemaker noted in his Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated, Kuyper tended to tailor questions to suit the answers he wished to provide. This is one example of that.

Granted, this leaves us with the necessity to answer the second part of Wood’s question, regarding Hoedemaker’s insistence that the state “must recognize a visible church.” Before we respond, we must understand the context in which Hoedemaker was writing.

In the first place, we refer to the struggle for the maintenance and even the survival of the national church. This church, known since the Restoration of 1815 as the “Nederlandsche Hervormde Kerk,” was the officially recognized church of the Dutch nation, but in this character was suppressed by the government, not promoted. Ideas such as freedom of religion, freedom of worship, and the free church in the free state were in the ascendancy in the 19th century, and the government used them as excuses to suppress the role of the national church in the schools, the universities, in legislation, in poor relief, and so on.[6] First and foremost, Hoedemaker was fighting for the restoration of this church to her proper role. In this, he argued in favor of a volkskerk or “church of the people,” for which he adopted the slogan, “all the church and all the people,” by which he meant that this church was by divine and historic right the church of the Dutch nation and that she needed to be restored to that position of eminence. Not for emoluments’ sake, as Kuyper and his ilk charged, but for the sake of a constitutional framework whereby the law of God is left not to the tender mercies of electoral and party-political horse-trading but is established as the unshakeable bulwark of constitutional, civil, criminal, administrative, and whatever other branch of law the state maintains, a task at which the national church had labored for centuries. Furthermore, that the popular character of the nation, Protestant and Reformed by virtue of centuries of discipline, needs this church to maintain that character in both public and private dimensions, else it devolve into godlessness and the dialectic of anarchy and tyranny.

This is the specific context of Hoedemaker’s work, which on the face of it precludes a preoccupation with ecumenism in the age of denominationalism. But he did recognize the existence of denominationalism. He saw it as the goal of his opponents, not only the modernists who wished to defang the national church, but the liberal-conservatives like Kuyper who wished to do away with her altogether in favor of private-legal bodies unrecognized by the state. The Kuyperian solution was to harness this framework, whereby Kuyper posited the church-as-organism[7] working through the political process via the mechanism of party politics (equal rights for all!) against the background of the neutral state.

Given this preoccupation with the struggle for the existence of the national church, it would be understandable if Hoedemaker devoted little thought to ecumenism. Wood ups the ante when he asks, “why stop at a national church?” He gives an indication of an answer when he muses that “This is most likely due to assuming the Westphalian political order of a world of independent nations and an implicit embrace of cuius regio, eius religio [the ruler of the land determines the religion of the land].” But it is not just a matter of a fait accompli in the wake of wars of religion, a compromise for the sake of peace. It is inherent in the very notion of the church attaching herself to the res publica and becoming in some way a part thereof. The public church is the volkskerk, the church of the people, and as such is wedded to the polity. This being the case, she cannot turn around and form part of a transnational institution in the manner of the Roman Catholic church, because there is no correlate polity transcending national boundaries. Therefore, the church works within the framework of nationhood established by God Himself in the wake of the Tower of Babel. Certainly, international assemblies such as the Synod of Dort can and ought to be held. Hoedemaker even makes the rather daring assertion that “we do not for a moment hesitate to propound that we envision general Christian church assemblies to settle confessional differences, as long as this is done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If the Italian faction in the Council of Trent had not triumphed, there and then would have seen achieved that which now seems to be an unattainable ideal.”[8] But these cannot solidify into going concerns, for that would put the church in the same untenable position as the Ultramontane Romanist.

Getting back to the second part of Wood’s question, he amplifies on it when he acknowledges his difficulty in grasping “in [Hoedemaker’s] schema how an established religion relates to a recognized body. Clarity was certainly needed regarding the new conciliarism he proposed. How would this new group that constitutes the council not form a type of institution?” Indeed, this is to grasp the nettle firmly. Hoedemaker does make the point that “With respect to general interests lying outside confessional differences, there is even, on our part, absolutely no objection to arriving at an expression of the unity of the church vis-à-vis society and the state,”[9] making use of “general Christian church assemblies” as mentioned above. This form of conciliarism would have to be achieved without compromise of any form: “But what we strongly deny is that unity ever could, should, or need be attained by the abandonment of one jot or tittle of God’s truth.”[10] The details he leaves to others. I have made an initial attempt at such details in my articles on The Church and Christian Politics, particular the second.[11]

But, as I point out in The Church and Christian Politics II, this leads to another point of cardinal importance. In the age of denominationalism, we already have a functioning principle of church unity, and it is found in the political process. Kuyper realized this and instrumentalized it to such a degree that his Anti-Revolutionary Party remained in power in one form or another until the early 1990s. In the United States it has taken the form of allegiance to the Republican Party, given its appeal to Christian virtues and principles. As a result, church unity is accomplished through the vehicle of political parties, with all the consequences that entails. As I write in The Church and Christian Politics II, “Unity there will be, by hook or by crook. And the vehicle to achieve collective action on the part of churches, or at least church members, is political action. To some extent this compensates for the dispersion on the ecclesiastical front. It can be argued that this has been the method for American Christians since the breakup of the established churches in the various states making up the Union. It is part and parcel of the Enlightenment agenda, according to which religion divides while the generally human (the correlate of which is a universal natural religion) unites. In this state of affairs, we do not have to agree on doctrine or dogma – a form of civil religion serves the purpose well enough to uphold the ethical claims of Christianity, enabling Christians of all stripes to cooperate with regard to temporalities while leaving to one side those pesky spiritualities.” Christians are so wedded to the political process as solution (no matter how often they beat their heads against this unforgiving wall) that it remains to be seen if they will ever seek true church unity as the only viable alternative to this dead end.

Wood takes issue with one other aspect of Hoedemaker’s approach, and this has to do with the question of natural law. “It seems also that he could expand on the role that natural law plays in his framework. He briefly mentions it in a few places, but in most other places he sounds like a Van Tillian theonomist, to speak anachronistically.” To be blunt, Hoedemaker does not give natural law any place in his system. And that is because he is downstream of what we might call the worldview revolution, of which neither Van Til nor Dooyeweerd nor Kuyper nor Groen van Prinsterer is the founder, but Friedrich Julius Stahl, the first scholar to publish explicitly in terms of the Christian worldview.[12] Stahl was highly critical of natural law, as evidenced by his history of legal philosophy.[13] And indeed, if we understand natural law to be what it has historically been idealized as, to wit, a body of knowledge with which “all men of good faith” can be appealed to without having to resort to God’s revealed will, a sort of common ground between Christian and non-Christian – if that is what we mean by natural law, then it is dead and good riddance to it. A generation that cannot even accept the existence of two and only two genders, male and female, has proven the point that, at bottom, there is no common ground between belief and unbelief, and that whatever common ground there might once have been has vanished in the wake of the advance of epistemological self-consciousness.

One other point of mere factual importance: Wood asserts that Kuyper “led an exodus from the national church, after being stripped of his ordination status in 1885, to launch a new, more committed, orthodox denomination in 1886.” Kuyper was not stripped of his ordination status. He was not even a pastor, but an elder serving in the Amsterdam consistory. He and 79 others were suspended from the consistory by the national church’s administrative board for refusing to carry out its will in a matter regarding church membership.[14] In fact, Kuyper had already left the ministry back in 1874, when he won a seat in Parliament. He never returned to it.

But that is to quibble. Wood has performed a great service by engaging Hoedemaker and posing the tough questions. It is to be hoped that this will inspire others as well to delve into the work of the great opponent of Abraham Kuyper, if for no other reason than to obtain balance in the often hagiographic treatment Kuyper tends to receive. And who knows if the time is not ripe to give Hoedemaker a chance, now that Kuyper has had his day?


[1] Timestamp 44:47 in “Episode 13: Expounding Ecclesiocentrism” (available at e.g. https://open.spotify.com/episode/1LW1i2wY7KoY86cvx6TSbT). Leithart’s admission is odd, in view of the fact that he participated in the Biblical Horizons Conference held nearly 32 years ago (January 1992) with the title Calvinism, Arminianism, and Theocracy, at which I gave a lecture entitled “Hoedemaker’s Critique of Kuyper.” The text of this lecture can be found at http://84.80.12.175/commonlawreview/theological/alvarado/kuyper-ii/. What is true of Leithart’s memory is also true of the original tapes of those lectures. They have mysteriously been expunged, as has the memory of my lectures on Althusius and Grotius: see the Biblical Horizons product page at WordMp3 (https://www.wordmp3.com/product-group.aspx?id=82). But not to worry: the substance of the lectures on Althusius and Grotius was taken up in my book, The Debate that Changed the West: Grotius versus Althusius (Pantocrator Press, 2018).

[2] “Not we, perhaps, but the representatives of the principles that you and I confess, will discuss this, when we are at rest, in twenty, fifty, a hundred years, if the struggle lasts that long.” Quoted in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated, p. 16.

[3] Available at adfontesjournal.com/church-history/how-abraham-kuyper-lost-the-nation-and-sidelined-the-church

[4] See Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper (Pantocrator Press, 2019; original published in 1901), pp. 106ff.

[5] For more on this, see my article Constantinianism and Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, available at http://84.80.12.175/commonlawreview/theological/alvarado/constantinianism-and-article-36-of-the-belgic-confession-of-faith/.

[6] Groen van Prinsterer gave succinct expression to the role of the church as sought, in his day, by F. J. Stahl, and later on by Hoedemaker: “The objection [to the Christian state] disappears as soon as one takes into account what Stahl means by the Christian state. No one can be more averse to Caesaropapism than he. His whole system is directed against state power and revolutionary centralization. Above all, he has always opposed that state unity to which, in its own sphere, the church is also subordinate; against the arbitrariness of the state by which the vocation and independence of the church in poor relief and education are undervalued. But this separation or distinction of church and state does not preclude the idea of the Christian state as Stahl conceives and promotes it; does not preclude mutual appreciation and support, cooperation and common deliberation, and does not relieve secular authority in Christian Europe from the obligation to obey the commandments of God, according to His revealed will, in law and in administration. Far less can be sought in this a reason not to harmonize the public institutions with the religious convictions and needs of the vast majority of the population, while leaving everyone free in what he personally desires. Christianity and the Reformation brought to the fore true individual right as it is connected with the demands of society and of community, against the divinization of the state in the ancient world whereby the citizen perished in the state, and against the ecclesiastical compulsion of Rome whereby conscience was subordinated to ecclesiastical authority. Precisely by a false individualism which does not attend to the unity of ethic in the state, the unity of faith in the church, the way is opened to the denial of individual right. Here too, les extrêmes se touchent [the extremes meet]. Doctrinal free-thinking in the church leads to administrative coercion, and, in the more political sphere, atomistic independence finds its fruit and its punishment in socialist despotism. One thinks he has neutralized church and state when actually he gives them up to influences that are anything but neutral. If faith departs from the church, unbelief will become ensconced in her; the form of the church will be made subservient to the strengthening of unbelief, to the persecution of faith. And when the Christian principle no longer predominates in the state, the anti-Christian principle, enshrined in the form of the state, will be turned against all that is still sacred and dear to a Christian nation.” Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, In Memory of Stahl (Aalten: Pantocrator Press, 2022), pp. 49–50. Can anything more prophetic be conceived?

[7] See my article The Kuyper Option: Kuyper’s Concept of the Church in the Context of Strategic Christian Action, available at https://www.academia.edu/63727504/The_Kuyper_Option_Kuypers_Concept_of_the_Church_in_the_Context_of_Strategic_Christian_Action

[8] Hoedemaker, Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Denominationalism (Aalten: Pantocrator Press, 2019), p. 192.

[9] Hoedemaker, Reformed Ecclesiology, p. 191.

[10] Hoedemaker, Reformed Ecclesiology, p. 192.

[11] Available here: http://84.80.12.175/commonlawreview/theological/alvarado/the-church-and-christian-politics and http://84.80.12.175/commonlawreview/theological/alvarado/church-unity-and-modern-politics/

[12] The Doctrine of Law and State on the Basis of the Christian World-View, vol. 2 of The Philosophy of Law, published in 1845.

[13] Published in 1847 as vol. 1 of The Philosophy of Law. In my translation, I published this history in two books, the first (tellingly) entitled The Rise and Fall of Natural Law.

[14] The details can be found in James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), pp. 159–160.