Did Abraham Kuyper Become An Anabaptist? Updated With A Postscript

Is theocracy, i.e., an state-established religion and the state enforcement of religious orthodoxy essential to Reformed theology, piety, and practice? That is the question asked and answered recently by Craig Carter, a former Anabaptist turned Particular Baptist theologian in response a recent essay by Mike Horton. In this essay I do not intend to engage with Horton’s essay but I will engage Carter’s response because, in it, he assumes a premise that I have engaged before, in print, and which seems to require another response. It is Carter’s initial response that interests me most. I think this is interesting for two reasons, 1) Carter is a Baptist and their history with established churches is not promising, so one wonders why Carter is so optimistic about them; 2) more centrally his assumption that to reject Christendom means a move toward an Anabaptist theology and ethic. I have responded to one aspect of this argument previously in the collection of essays, On Being Reformed (2018) (see below) but I want to pursue other responses here.

He wrote:

His critique is very familiar to me, since I wrote a book on John Howard Yoder and I have read Stanley Hauerwas extensively. Their Anabaptist critique of “Christendom” as founded on coercion has apparently been embraced by Horton, as a Reformed theologian. This is pretty significant. It means that Horton rejects a major tenet of the magisterial Reformation, namely that a Christian prince, or, in the case of a constitutional republic like the US, a people, can adopt belief in God as the foundational principle of social order and base all law on that belief. It is scarcely possible to imagine Western civilization apart from this idea of a Christian nation. When the church is successful in evangelizing the vast majority of the population, the resulting Christian people must choose what kind of polity under which they will live; hence, Christendom. To dismiss Christendom as incompatible with the Gospel is to side with the Anabaptists over against Luther, Calvin, Cramner, Knox, Zwingli, etc. This opens the door to the take-over of the state by entities hostile to God and his church, which seems to be happening right now.1

He did not argue this thread in the essay linked above but he has elaborated on it some in Twitter, in defense of Christendom, i.e., an established church. Some of what Carter says is true. Horton, like most American Christians, has rejected the idea of Christendom. Speaking for myself, I have long argued that Christendom was a mistake, that there is nothing inherent in Christianity which seeks or demands establishment by the state. There is nothing inherent to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice that seeks or requires state-establishment. As a matter of history, the Apostolic church never argued or even imagined state-establishment. The early post-Apostolic church did not argue for or envision state-establishment. Constantine himself merely legalized the institutional church and the Christian religion. He did not establish a state-church. That was a later development under Theodosius and finally codified under Justinian. As to the church successfully evangelizing the entire population, that entails a sort of golden-age (postmillennial) eschatology that most Amillennialists do not accept.

Christendom is  a fact of history. It existed for more than a millennium and shaped the world in which we now live. It is also true that we live on this side of Christendom. We must decide whether we will seek to return to it (which seems to be a popular option among North American evangelicals) or not. His description of Christendom, however, is a little thin, which is understandable given the limits of the medium in which he was working, but the implications seem clear. His vision of Christendom never existed the way he seems to imagine. There was never a time in Christendom, of which I am aware, in which a majority, in a democratic republic, peaceful voted to create a Christian nation. The Christian nations to which he refers were constituted such from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. Christian missionaries reached the West from the Mediterranean, and evangelized elites who  converted. They then instituted Christianity as the state religion. Literally, one day a village was pagan. The next day it was declared “Christian.” This was always problematic as even the Reformers, who heartily supported an established church,  conceded. It is true that the magisterial Reformers supported an established church. It is also true that there were instances when Anabaptists did the same, complicating Carter’s narrative.

First, Carter overlooks a good chunk of history since the 17th century.

Three Counter Examples

There are at least three significant examples of confessional Reformed churches and figures who have, on principle, rejected Christendom, as defined, without becoming Anabaptist in any substantive, meaningful way. The American Presbyterians rejected the established church in 1788. They did not become Anabaptist. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) became a staunch critic of the established church and argued vigorously and ultimately successfully for the revision of Belgic Confession Art. 37, which, in its original text, confessed a state-church and the state-enforced prosecution of religious heresy. Finally, as symbol of the where most of the confessional Reformed churches have landed on this issue, I turn to my own federation of churches, which recently adopted the revisions to the Belgic advocated by Kuyper.

the american presbyterians

The American Presbyterians revised the Westminster Confession in 1788. Thus, one will see American Presbyterians refer to “the confession of faith” rather than to the Westminster Confession, as a short-hand way of acknowledging the revisions. The original text of Westminster Confession 23.3, on the civil magistrate said:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

The Americans revised the WCF thus:

3. (Completely rewritten) Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.2

Since 1788 American Presbyterians have formally rejected one of the essentials of Christendom, that the magistrate “hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that the unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruption and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly sealed, administered and observed.” Further, they rejected the view that the magistrate has authority to convoke ecclesiastical assemblies. Thereby, the American Presbyterians turned their back on a millennium of piety and practice. They agreed that there is no authority in the Word of God for the magistrate to do these things. Caesar has no interest in the theology, piety, and practice of the visible church. His business is to govern civil society (see Romans 13). Caesar is not especially gifted in discerning orthodoxy or the right administration of the sacraments. He has no insight into the right worship of God. Indeed, where Caesar has meddled, he has typically done more harm than good. The soil of Europe was soaked in the blood of a great lot of magisterial Protestants, chiefly Reformed folk. The Spanish murdered no fewer than 12,000 Reformed in the Netherlands. We really don’t know how many French Reformed the Papists murdered around St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. Most scholars agree that it was around 5,000 in Paris on the first day but the violent frenzy spread to the countryside. I think we may safely think in terms of 30,000 martyrs in that week. No group, certainly not the Anabaptists, claim close to suffering as much at the hands of the magistrate as the Reformed in the 16th century, which makes their adherence to the establishment principle all the more remarkable. The author of the Belgic Confession, Guy de Pres (1522–67) was so committed to this principle that he chose martyrdom rather than resistance to Papist tyranny.

When the American Presbyterians rejected the establishment principle, they were rejecting the essence of Christendom. It took time for the principle to work itself out but they certainly could not be called “Anabaptists” by any reasonable definition.

Abraham kuyper (1837–1920)

Kuyper was perhaps the most outstanding critic of Christendom in late 19th century and early 20th century. That might surprise those who think of Kuyper anachronistically, in light of his later followers, some of whom are theocrats and theonomists. Kuyper himself, as optimistic as his eschatology was (along the lines envisioned by Carter, thus his “Amillennialism” verged on Postmillennialism—check out the Heidelcast series on eschatology linked below) argued forcefully for the disestablishment of the church in the Netherlands for the reasons I have already given. His arguments were so powerful that the Christian Reformed Church spent decades arguing over them (illustrating the powerful hold of Christendom on the imaginations of even Dutch Reformed immigrants to a land without an established church) before finally adopting his view formally in the late 1950s. Abraham Kuyper is the antithesis of the Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. Kuyper was steeped in the Reformed tradition. He is one of the few theologians in the modern period who may be said to have made a genuine contribution to Reformed theology or to have changed Reformed theology. Like the American Presbyterians of the late 18th century, he was able to see the flaws inherent in Christendom and the value of leaving it behind. That hardly made him a crypto-Anabaptist. For more on Kuyper’s argument in favor of the revision of the Belgic Confession, along the lines of the the American revision of the Westminster Confession, see the resources below.

the united reformed churches in north america

The federation of churches in which I am a minister, the United Reformed Churches in North America, formed c. 1996, is decidedly not Anabaptist. We are descended from the Dutch Reformed churches and the Synod of Dort. In recent years we have adopted a revision of Belgic Confession art. 36 on the civil magistrate. The Revised version says:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings. For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good. And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task,   subject to God’s law, of removing every obstacle  to the preaching of the gospel   and to every aspect of divine worship. They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency  toward exercising  absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them,  with the means belonging to them. They should do it in order that   the Word of God may have free course;  the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress;  and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.* Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict  with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them  in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency. And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.

The astute reader will notice that we still single out the Anabaptists for criticism regarding their doctrine of the community of property. Further, we still “Therefore we confess, against the heresy of the Anabaptists  who deny that Christ assumed human flesh from his mother, that he ‘shared the very flesh and blood of children’…” (Art. 18). In other words, we still condemn the heretical Anabaptist Christology of Christ’s so-called “celestial flesh,” which is docetism and anti-Christ (1 John 2:18; 4:3). We still “detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers” (Art. 34). The Baptists share this error with the Anabaptists, which, unlike Christendom, is essential to Christian theology, piety, practice. Tell me again, who is the Anabaptist here, the Reformed Christian who rejects Christendom or the Baptist who agrees with the Anabaptists on the nature of the history of redemption, the church, and the sacrament of Baptism? (For more on this see “A House of Cards?” linked below).3

The URCs agree with Kuyper and thus we have omitted this paragraph from the Belgic:

*The preceding three paragraphs are a substitution for the original paragraph below, which various Reformed Synods have judged to be unbiblical:

And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.

The Medieval and Reformation churches tended to identify the post-Apostolic magistrate with the theocratic Israelite kings. We now see that to be a mistake. Henry VIII was not David and Fredrick III, of blessed memory, was not Solomon. They were secular magistrates. Heidelberg was never Israel and neither was France. It was never the job of the magistrate to punish heretics nor to promote the kingdom of Christ. Paul only said that the magistrate’s job is to punish criminals.

Christ & Culture

The Anabaptist movement was marked by a distinct view of Christ and culture, that the Reformed have never held and do not hold today: that grace wipes out nature. To be sure, there are ways in which neo-Kuyperian transformationalism might verge on the Anabaptist view, with their talk about “Christian softball” and the like but in the Anabaptist scheme there is no place for creation or nature. Their over-realized eschatology must wipe out creation or nature.

The rejection of Christendom, of the established church and all that attends to it, is arguably a proper outworking of the Reformed view that grace renews fallen nature in salvation. Pace the Kuyperians, we do not confess nor does our theology know anything about “redeeming” various cultural practices. We do know about Christ redeeming and transforming sinners in the his image, sola gratiasola fide. That may have social consequences and we hope it does but the goal of the preaching of the gospel is not social transformation nor the obtaining of civil power but to advance the Kingdom of God on the earth through the embassy, the church.

The revisions of the Westminster Confession and the Belgic Confession are arguably a more logical outworking of Calvin’s “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen) than Christendom. By distinguishing the two, by recognizing the secular, by allowing the secular to be secular (something neither the Anabaptists nor the Kuyperians seem to be able to do) we are working out Calvin’s principle without the baggage of Christendom.

Theology, Piety, & Practice

Finally, the notion that to abandon Christendom is to abandon the magisterial Reformation in favor of Anabaptism is ignores what it is that constitutes Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Our doctrines of God, humanity, Christ, salvation, church, sacraments, and last things are unchanged. Yes, our ethics have changed somewhat. As I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession, we are also no longer geocentrists. Virtually all of us a heliocentrists now, i.e., we became convinced by science that the earth revolves around the sun. Does this mean that we have apostatized? After all, with only a few exceptions, virtually everyone of the magisterial Reformers was a geocentrist in the 16the century. Not at all. As it turns out, geocentrism, though widely held, was not essential our theology, piety, and practice. We gave it the way some people lose an appendix. It was a minor surgery (if there is such a thing) and we carried on just fine without. So it is with Christendom. Like geocentrism, Christendom was a mistake. We are simply returning, in this way, to the status quo ante Theodosius. I am happy that Christianity is a legal religion. I am happy that the state recognizes the Christian Sabbath as a weekly holiday. I think there are good natural law arguments for a weekly day of rest and the pagans, like the French Revolutionaries will soon discover that humans need rest and Sunday will do just fine. If we lose that day, then we shall adapt just as the early Christians did but we do not need an established church or Christendom to flourish. We only need to be left alone, which was the argument of the apologists in the second century.


Craig has responded here.

We agree that the definition of Christendom is a central question and that we are operating with different definitions. I should have been clearer about that in this essay.

You should read his response for yourself, but it seems to me that Craig’s vision of Christendom is rather benevolent and might be modeled in places like Poland and Hungary but it certainly does not reflect the historic, pre-Enlightenment history of Christendom, in which the state punished and persecuted heretics. It was out of that history that the Americans and Kuyper rejected the state-church.

Further, it is not as if we do not have examples of what happened to state-churches before and after the Enlightenment movements. The Pietist movement and later the Reveil movement were reactions to the nominalism of the state-church. Today, the UK has an established church as does Canada, where Craig lives. There is little evidence that having a state-church has done anything to reduce  the influence of the sort of leftist-Marxist, politically-correct, sexual-revolutionary ideology about which we are both concerned. Do Canadian and British preachers have more or less liberty to speak than American preachers? I think not.

Arguably, the USA, with its written constitution and its formal, legal recognition of the “certain unalienable rights” has done better and is better positioned to respond to the new left. Various legal organizations and legislative bodies seem poised to make use of the various constitutional mechanisms, e.g., litigation and legislation, to preserve American liberties, e.g., religion, speech, press, association, and self-defense.


1. Craig wrote this originally using Twitter shorthand. For the sake of clarity here I have taken the liberty of translating his shorthand into conventional English.

2. From the Confession of Faith as adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

3. I see that Carter published a volume on Christ and culture: Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), which I have not read but from the title of which I infer that his views have changed since 2006.

©R. Scott Clark


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  1. I have ambiguous thoughts about this. On the one hand, the Bible gives us the example of the powerless church, both in the Babylonian Exile and in the first years of the church after the coming of the Messiah. It is also true that Christ and the Apostles had no earthly army, and that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

    Yet the Bible is also wholistic. If there is no area of life of which Christ does not say, “It is mine” that means the state and political life must also come under Christ’s crown and covenant. It is a valid criticism that uncritical acceptance of the “wall of separation” has left the church and believers increasingly a prey to a proudly anti-Christian consensus in media, law, government, academia, and big tech. Given the totalitarian temptation to which all states are subject, “secularism” does indeed succumb to the idols of state, “science”, appetite, and fashion. It is by no means neutral, and will not be neutral.

    • Peter,

      Kuyper was right about “one square inch” but wrong in how he applied it. This is where the “crown & covenant” argument breaks down. It doesn’t follow that if Christ is Lord over all all (he is) that it must come to expression in the state or in an established church.

      This is because Christ exercises his dominion in two distinct spheres, the sacred and the secular, as Calvin said. As Gillespie and Rutherford said, he exercises his dominion over the state and secular sphere in his general providence and over the sacred (e.g., the church) in his special, saving providence.

      No, I don’t think the “wall of separation” has done anything to the church. We’ve done it to ourselves. How it came to be that secularit’s have come to view the church as they do is a long story but a dis-established church isn’t part of the problem. It’s part of the solution. It’s why the church in this country is as robust as it is in comparison to Europe.

      See Carl Trueman’s latest for a very extensive, detailed explanation for how things have got to where they are. It’s worth the effort.

  2. 1. Which Frederick III do you mean? I can think of at least two candidates for being of blessed memory (Frederick the Wise and Frederick III Elector Palatine).
    2. General Relativity would allow us to be geocentric again – however, it makes the maths much more complicated.

  3. “If we lose that day, then we shall adapt just as the early Christians did” – Actually, how DID they adapt? I get the impression that the only thing they made anything of was making sure they got away to meet on the Lord’s Day (if they could physically), but as for rest, taking it when they could (If you were with a Jewish community, that would mean Saturday).
    How should Christians adapt today in countries where the day is other than Sunday, or where there isn’t a day at all? (In 20th century Turkey, newly formed fellowships tended to meet on Fridays, but found encouragement when they could become bold enough to meet on Sundays).

  4. Sometimes, when I read such places of Scriptures, as Matthew 10:34-39, Luke 12:51-53, Luke 14: 26, James 4:4, John 12:25, 1 John 2:15-16, Galatians 2:19-20, Galatians 5:17, Galatians 5:24, Galatians 6:14 and oth., I am ready to believe that “grace wipes out nature”.

    • Can you explain how, in context, Matt 10:34–39 intends to teach that grace obliterates nature? It’s not self-evident to me.

      “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

  5. It is clear to me. In Matt. 10:35-36 Jesus (i. e. grace) said, that He come to make divisions and break natural family bonds (nature). Bishop J.C. Ryle make the next commentary here: “The object of His first coming on earth was not to set up a millennial kingdom in which all would be of one mind, but to bring in the Gospel, which would lead to strifes and divisions. We have no right to be surprised, if we see this continually fulfilled. We are not to think it strange, if the Gospel rends asunder families, and causes estrangement between the nearest relations. It is sure to do so in many cases, because of the deep corruption of man’s heart”(J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Matthew 10, verses 34-42).

    In the Matt. 10:37, Jesus demand that we must value Him more over than any family bonds or relationships (i.e. nature), otherwise we are not worthy of Him. Grace here again contraposed to nature, as matchlessly important and priceless thing.

    Luke 14:26 sounds even more radical! “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”. Such work of Grace truly can hold the name of “obliteration of nature” and the beginning of Repentance. We never can know the sweetness of Christ, unless we first taste His bitterness.

    Some XVIII ct. french infidels (baron Holbach) says that Jesus was a very bad moralist, because by those statements He weakened the worth of natural family bonds. But I guess, that Jesus just use the ancient language of Stoics. (Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, book VII, Zeno: “…in the beginning of his “Republic” he pronounced the ordinary education useless: the next is that he applies to all men who are not virtuous the opprobrious epithets of foemen, enemies, slaves, and aliens to one another, parents to children, brothers to brothers, friends to friends”).

    [I hope that my English was correct].

    • Ihor,

      Our Lord appealed to nature to correct the Pharisees regarding marriage when he said, “it was not so from the beginning” (Matt 19:8). He also appealed to the creational pattern of the Sabbath to correct the Pharisees (Mark 2:27). The Apostle Paul also appealed to nature in Romans 1–2.

      Scripture does not teach that grace obliterates or wipes out nature. Scripture teaches that grace renews fallen sinners. The notion that grace wipes out nature assumes an over-realized eschatology.

      In the passage about which I asked, our Lord is not wiping out nature. Families are still families but the family is not ultimate. The Kingdom of God, which is an eschatological institution, has broken into human history. We may not use nature (family) to leverage the KOG. When the two conflict, we must follow the KOG.

      I grew with Ryle. Jesus did not establish an earthly millennial kingdom but he did bring the KOG/KOH with him and the Kingdom does exist now. Its embassy is the visible church.

      We agree that grace is not nature but you haven’t shown (nor do I think you can) that, according to Scripture, grace wipes out nature. Baseball is still baseball.

      I think we may be talking past one another. I don’t think you have understood my meaning re the obliteration or wiping out of nature.

  6. Thank you for your time and answer, dr. Clark.

    Of course, families are still families, and all our family duties and other kind of social duties still too. Yet, now God becomes our greatest value, and we know that “we must obey God rather than men”. Even gold and silver now was corroded.

    And I, of course, agree with you, that the grace renews sinners through repentance, making them new creation. Nevertheless, the first and most painful, yet most essential stage of repentance was “mortification”. What do you think about “Institutes” III.3. 8: saying about repentance, Calvin use next words “In dissuading us from wickedness they demand the entire destruction of the flesh, which is full of perverseness and malice. It is a most difficult and arduous achievement to renounce ourselves, and lay aside our natural disposition”; “the first step to the obedience of his law is the renouncement of our own nature”; “we are naturally averse to God, unless self-denial precede, we shall never tend to that which is right”; “the very name mortification reminds us how difficult it is to forget our former nature, because we hence infer that we cannot be trained to the fear of God, and learn the first principles of piety, unless we are violently smitten with the sword of the Spirit and annihilated, as if God were declaring, that to be ranked among his sons there must be a destruction of our ordinary nature.” [Hm, in available russian translation of “Institutes”, all this words sounds more agressive].

    It seems, that Calvin ready to say about the destruction of nature by grace. And after this, there must be start the renewal of fallen sinners, or “vivification”, when their wills become uniting with Christ’s will in one substance and etc. (Or it is better to say, that “mortification” and “vivification” are two permanent processes of repentance, which was also permanent).

    So, when we speak about repentance, duty of self-denial, resignation to the will of God, methinks, we can say that grace wiping out our nature (or may be, it’s better to say “wiping out the depravity of our nature”). That’s why apostle say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. Nature says: “death is the most fearful thing”(Aristotle). Grace says: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”.

    Sometimes, we even ready to think that sin is the very substance of our nature (as Flacius think), not just accidence . Especially, if we can know real power of our depravity. So, in emotional subjectivity we can think that grace must destroy the foundation of the wickedness of our nature.

    I hope that my answer sounds well, and I almost didn’t write nonsense.

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