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Abraham Kuyper's Our Worship: First English translation

Abraham Kuyper said that Christ is Lord over every "square inch" of life. Thanks to Our Worship, translated by Harry Boonstra and augmented by scholars' essays, you can now read Kuyper's perceptive writings on public worship.

“All of life is worship.” “We worship 24/7.” “Christ is Lord of all.” “Every square inch of creation needs to be redeemed.” “Our world belongs to God.”

When you hear these phrases from preachers and professors, you can bet they’ve probably read (or read about) Abraham Kuyper. He was a minister, statesman, theologian, and writer whose influence has lasted a century and spread far beyond his Dutch and Reformed roots.

Christians often quote Abraham Kuyper to argue against splitting life into sacred and secular categories or against shrinking the gospel to being only about saving individual souls. In 1898, when Kuyper gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, he explained why and how God’s sovereign grace applies to religion, politics, science, and art.

Until recently, few English speakers knew that Kuyper also wrote a lot about corporate worship. Our Worship, translated by Harry Boonstra, is the first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s essays on worship.

Our Worship offers surprisingly relevant insights on meaningful, biblically faithful, and spiritually formative worship. Essays by Boonstra and other scholars explain Kuyper’s worship theory and his place within Christendom’s liturgical renewal.

Man with a worldview

You may know people who believe or live as if God is concerned only with the church and his personal relationships with individual believers. They see Christian spirituality as mainly private, or at least limited to prayer, worship, evangelism, and “kingdom work,” by which they mean lay or paid ministry.

But Abraham Kuyper and his Scottish contemporary, James Orr, followed the lead of Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” They saw Christianity (Calvinism in Kuyper’s case) as a biblical world and life view that frames every part of how people understand and live their lives.

As Kuyper said in his Stone Lectures, “Not only the church, but also theworld belongs to God and in both has to be investigated the masterpiece of the supreme Architect and Artificer.”

Harry Boonstra’s essay in Our Worship explains that Kuyper’s worldview put him at odds with powerful government and church leaders. The Dutch government didn’t allow faith instruction in public schools yet interfered in how churches were run. Unlike some state-appointed church leaders and theology professors, Kuyper believed that confessional doctrine and personal piety are important.

Yet he didn’t agree with Reformed Christians whose piety equated worship change with unfaithfulness or who focused so much on sin and guilt that they never felt free to take communion. Kuyper showed that genuine faith and worship lead Christians outward as well as inward. He worked for labor rights and spoke out against exploitation in Dutch colonies.

Theory of worship

In Kuyper’s worldview, the unifying principle isn’t justification by faith, it’s that the Triune God’s sovereign and transforming grace is for the entire cosmos. That passion pushed him into politics. His passion for an all-encompassing discipleship kept him writing about worship for a Christian weekly newspaper, even after he left government service.

Boonstra’s new translation is an abridged version of the worship essay collection that Kuyper published in 1911.

Kuyper once advised that time could have been saved in a certain liturgical form “if some of the verbose sentences were omitted.” Boonstra’s translation omits Kuyper’s repetitive sentences, obscure Dutch references, and instructions on topics such as how to furnish council rooms or vacate a burning church.

Our Worship begins with a chapter on reviving liturgical awareness. “The very idea of liturgy has been completely lost, and it can only gradually be recovered,” Kuyper wrote.

Church members wanted to move beyond chaotic, irregular worship but looked at liturgical issues as independent questions. “What is so badly needed is a clear insight into the unity of thought that must govern all these disconnected details,” he wrote.

Kuyper’s unifying worship principle is that worship is the called out assembly of believers, and he used that principle to critique something that still happens.

“It is quite common in America, especially in the larger cities, for a minister to start his own church, attract whoever will come, and maintain his church from the contributions that come in. Such a church is thus literally an independent business run by the minister, without any confessional forms and without connections to other churches. It is nothing other than a circle gathering around a talented speaker,” he wrote.

Kuyper defined a “genuine church” as a “gathering of believers originating in an historical past that goes back all the way to Pentecost in Jerusalem.” He reminded readers that God, not a minister, creates a church, and that we are all God’s priests.

The practice of worship

Our Worship corrects a tendency among Kuyperians to honor the priesthood of all believers yet blur life and worship.

While it’s true that some Christians practice an “other worldly” piety, it’s also a danger among “24/7” Christians to be so busy transforming the world that they miss how Christ wants to transform them.

“The difficulty here should be plain: If everything is worship, then we no longer have the conceptual and linguistic equipment to describe what is distinctive and special about corporate worship,” John Bolt writes in his Our Worship essay titled “All of Life is Worship? Abraham Kuyper and the Neo-Kuyperians.”

Kuyper wrote that the practice of worship is not just going to church, because worship “must be the one, grand, royal action of our whole life, in all our thoughts, words, and deeds. We are always God’s priests, called to serve his holy purposes….

“However the service of God for the congregation does not come to full expression until the congregation assembles in worship for the express purpose of bringing God honor, praise, and prayers.”

Bolt explains that in corporate worship, the gathered assembly distances itself from the world’s counter-stories to “join the liturgy of the church” and “link with the story of God’s people in service to God around the world, today…yesterday and tomorrow.”

Abraham Kuyper on Worship as the Assembly of Believers

A warm glowing love that binds people together in the house of prayer. Feeling a release from yourself while praying, singing psalms, and listening to preaching. Led into fellowship and meeting with God so that you experience ecstasy and strength. A note of love and praise vibrating through your heart all day.

Those experiential phrases come from Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch minister, statesman, and theologian, who wrote about worship a century ago for a Christian weekly newspaper. Unless you know Dutch, you’ve probably never read Kuyper’s liturgical and pastoral essays on worship.
Now you can, because the first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s Our Worship was published in December 2008.

It includes essays by translator Harry Boonstra and other scholars, such as Nicholas Wolterstoff, who writes, “There are some things in Kuyper’s discussion that I would want to dissociate myself from. But as to the central idea and its implications, I now feel that almost everything I have written about liturgy in the past amounts to reinventing the wheel.”

Abraham Kuyper’s central idea of worship as the called out assembly of believers may clear a path through your congregation’s questions on liturgical renewal and worship order.

Called out by God

Some congregations define God-honoring worship practice as only those things commanded by God or shown by example in the Bible (regulative worship principle). Others feel free to consider worship practices as long as the Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit them.

Abraham Kuyper framed worship differently. He suggested that “the highest view” of public worship fits these ideas:

  • A congregation of Christ is identified as a unified whole only when it is assembled.
  • This “assembled congregation loosens its ties to the world and strengthens its ties to God.”
  • This “coming together of ourselves” is different from attending a lecture or interpretive reading, because in public worship, believers assemble “for the sake of being in each other’s presence.”
  • Believers assemble “with the congregation of Christ, in order to meet, together, the Eternal Being.

“Many still have the idea that the real purpose of holding church is to explicate the Bible to those who have gathered, and then to admonish or comfort the listeners. People do not understand at all the difference between a Bible lesson, a Bible discussion, and a worship service. They think it is a worship service when the minister discusses one or two verses, and that it is a Bible lesson when he discusses a whole chapter,” Kuyper wrote.

He saw liturgy as interaction—and not only between the minister and congregation or certain members within the congregation. “God also acts. God is not a static presence,” Wolterstorff explains in his Our Worship essay. In the liturgy, God speaks indirectly in the greeting, absolution, benediction, and sermon. God acts directly through the Scripture readings and the Lord’s Supper, in which Christ unites believers with himself.

Liturgical renewal

Kuyper was writing to Reformed congregations who put a high value on sermons and more often referred to the Sunday service as preek orpreekdienst (sermon service) instead of eredienst (worship service). Boonstra says they judged worship service worth “solely on the preacher’s sermonizing.”

But for Kuyper, this sermon-focused, “formless” (non liturgical) worship did “much damage to the church.” It ignored worshipers’ active participation in dialogue with God and ignored what God does in the sacraments of baptism and communion.

He suggested performing baptisms from a large font, rather than a moveable bowl, so that the whole congregation could see them and remember their own baptisms. “This call…still needs to be heard. Even in churches which have fonts, these often resemble an ornamental birdbath, and the last thing they call to mind is the bath of baptism,” Bryan D. Spinks writes in his Our Worship essay, “Abraham Kuyper on Baptismal Belief and Practice.”

Spinks finds Kuyper’s worship insights relevant because “he knew that to reform a liturgical tradition, one first must know….and balance history and theology.”

Liturgical scholar Geoffrey Wainwright calls Kuyper a “pioneering liturgist,” because his “assembly of believers” definition of worship “harks back” to Reformation confessions and anticipates the 20th century ecumenical liturgical renewal movement.

Wainright says Kuyper’s two-way understanding of worship “clearly envisaged” the late Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s picture of the liturgical assembly as “the regular contraction and dilation of the heart, the breathing in and out of the church, the gathering for worship and the dispersal into life and witness.”

(Von Allmen, a Swiss Reformed theology professor, and Wainright, a British Methodist theologian, both served on Faith and Order commissions. Wainright contributed to the 1982 Faith and Order Lima text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.)

Sequence matters

Kuyper reminded readers that John Calvin and the Polish reformer Johannes à Lasco (Jan Laski) “both prescribed a fairly elaborate liturgy. They restored the liturgical prayers. They preached the sacred, well thought-out Word in the church. They arranged the sequence of the various parts of the service. And far from making preaching the main element, they weaved it into an entire sequence of acts which all expressed worship.”

Wolterstorff and Wainright highlight Kuyper’s idea that the whole assembly of believers, including the minister, must set and follow rules of participation in liturgy. To actively participate in worship, people need to know what they are doing—and when and why.

Wainright appreciates Kuyper’s suggestion to sometimes place the reading of the Law (Ten Commandments or Christ’s summary of loving God and neighbor) after the sermon, instead of always before the service of the Word.

“Given the sanctificationist strain in their tradition, Methodists ought to be sympathetic towards an ethic of gratitude (as in the Heidelberg Catechism) and the ‘third use of the Law’ as guidance for living,” Wainright says.

Learn More

Order Our WorshipHear Harry Boonstra explain Abraham Kuyper’s thoughts on worship at the 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Check out Boonstra’s fascinating Reformed Worship story on Abraham Kuyper’s explanation of why Reformed worshipers in the Netherlands stopped kneeling in worship. (Liturgy had little to do with it.)

Though Abraham Kuyper is no longer a household name in the Netherlands, scholars in the English speaking world still study and quote him:

  • Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, USA, sponsors an annual lecture and conference, maintains a research collection, and plans an annual journal on Kuyper and Reformed thought.
  • All of Life Redeemed (United Kingdom website) links to dozens of online resources on Kuyper.
  • Center for Public Justice in Annapolis, Maryland, sponsors an annual Kuyper lecture.
  • Christian Classics Ethereal Library offers English language versions of works by and about Abraham Kuyper.
  • Friend of Kuyper links to relevant blogs and online resources.
  • Kuyper Foundation in Somerset, England, “exists to promote a renaissance of Christian culture in society.”

Two excellent books on Abraham Kuyper are Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Readeredited by James D. Bratt, and Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism byPeter S. Heslam. This Theology Today article reviews both books. Also see God’s Renaissance Man: Abraham Kuyper by James E. McGoldrick.

Learn about Kuyper’s concepts of sphere sovereignty and common grace in this Christianity Today article by Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary president.

Browse related stories on ancient future worship, how to create worship renewal or design worship together, and moving from pastor-centered toparticipative worship.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get people talking:

  • What is your congregation’s main metaphor for worship? What do you find most helpful about this view?
  • How do your worship services form people for life beyond the sanctuary?
  • What positive or negative connotations does the word liturgy have for you?
  • Abraham Kuyper wrote about many liturgical imbalances. Which might your congregation need to address? Worship is all about the sermon…sermons don’t connect with the rest of worship…there’s no plan for regular Bible reading…God is the audience, not the one who calls you to worship….communion is rarely celebrated or celebrative….

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about worship change in a historical or theological context?

    • If you have identified recent or hoped-for worship changes, what method did you use for explaining why those changes did or should happen? Is the reason for worship change biblical, historical, theological, cultural, practical, something else?
    • Many congregations in the Reformed tradition find Abraham Kuyper’s works helpful in shaping life and worship. Which heroes of the faith mean most in your tradition? Will you tell us why and share your favorite resources about these people?