19 June 2017

BK Kuiper and Sacralist Historiography

I've touched on this issue before but I recently encountered it again and have been meaning for several years to write a small piece about it.
BK Kuiper's The Church in History remains popular among homeschoolers and is particularly regarded in Reformed circles. They would say he writes from a distinctly Reformed perspective and provides a matching metanarrative. His critics would argue he writes with a distinct and at times misleading bias.

Theologically there is much to critique about Kuiper and the bias is accentuated with the advent of the Reformation. A distinctively Reformed spin is put on post-Reformational history while I would additionally argue his medieval history is rooted in the traditional Magisterial Protestant gloss that omits many important issues and questions... to the point of being almost misleading.
The work is old enough that it escapes some of the more grievous errors in interpretation which are so prevalent in our day. I'm thinking of the praise and justifications so typical with regard to the Crusades. As I've often said, such apologias were virtually nonexistent before the 1990s. I grew up in Fundamentalist and Evangelical circles and back in the day, no one praised this chapter in Church history.
I take great exception to Kuiper's sacralist language and interpretations of Church history. One example will suffice to make the point. 'The Church Loses Territory' is the heading of a chapter regarding Islam's conquest of Byzantine territories and Spain.
Think about his language a moment. The Church loses territory.
What he's suggesting is that the Church is equivalent to political Christendom.
Culturally speaking was the Church wiped out by Islamic conquest? In many places it suffered, in some places after generations it did disappear. In other cases it survived.
The Church loses territory.
Is the Church defined by political boundaries, civil law, land claims, language and armies? Kuiper seems to think so and whether his readers know it or not he has just inserted a great deal of unchallenged theological presumption. I will grant that many theologians and apologists for Christendom (itself an unbiblical concept) will take no issue with his words. I will also grant than many American Christians who are all but card-carrying members of the Christian Right are already used to thinking in those terms. They will take no exception either.
But the Bereans, the students of Scripture will examine the New Testament and by it the Old and find such a concept to be both wanting and alien. God made no covenant with the nations of Europe, let alone their New World descendants. Never in Scripture does man initiate covenants or delineate the terms. Christendom is at best a pseudo-theocracy, a counterfeit of the now obsolete Israelite Theocracy. The New Testament rightly interprets the Old Covenant and renders the Mosaic order as obsolete. Christians are pilgrims and strangers living as exiles on this Earth.
So how can the Church lose territory? The Church is the realm of the Holy Spirit's activity. It's made up of those who are in Union with Christ, those who are even now seated in the heavenlies, living in both the Already and Not Yet simultaneously. Our territory, our Kingdom is in the New Heavens and New Earth. According to our Lord, unbelievers are unable to see or discern the Kingdom, so how can it be associated with temporal political entities? In terms of the tactile and tangible it is only represented on Earth through the word sanctified waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Holy Supper. It is through these holy tokens that we participate in and commune with our Lord and His saints that reign even now in Heaven.
There is no earthly territory to speak of. In fact Pentecost hints at the undoing of Babel through the work of the Spirit. Christians are of a new nation and are freed from the tribalism born of Babel. We are a new tribe. We owe no real allegiance to any nation. Nationalism and Patriotism are Satan born pseudo-Kingdom impulses, worldly expressions of fallen man trying to re-create the Edenic Kingdom of God on his terms and through his own means. Babel and all nations after it try to claim the Divine Presence, sanction and mandate on their Babel projects. Is the Church to create a new Babel, a new nation defined by political boundaries and defended with an army?
That's what the world does. That's what the nations do. The Church will not change the existing order. We understand this is what fallen men do but certainly we are not to buy into this way of thinking nor give our lives, children and money toward these causes.
The Church loses territory.
While I hardly wish to endorse the conquests of Islam and even justify them for a moment, the Church was probably better off in a situation of social antithesis than under the confused idolatrous yoke of Visigothic Spain or the Byzantine Levant and Maghreb.
Better a Turk than a Habsburg. Many Christians found living under the Muslims Turks to be more tolerable than to live under the Sacralist Rome-allied Habsburgs who would unleash Inquisitions and Jesuits upon them.
The Church Loses Territory.
The very title of the chapter tells much with regard to the historian. There's a lot of good information in his book and I've enjoyed working through it on more than one occasion. Despite the errors it's still useful for homeschooling. But the teacher had better be aware of the problems and rather than ignore them... use them as examples of bad theology and the problems of historiography.
What is 'the' good Church history? I wouldn't dare recommend any without qualification. Read them but read secular historians as well. This is not because their lost wisdom will help us to rightly interpret Church History. Far from it. Rather, they will focus on different questions and arrange the narrative through a different grid. It too will be false and problematic but in some cases their errors and lack of judgment are more easily detected than that which is done falsely in Christ's name.
Read Kuiper but beware and do not trust his judgments. He's a Reformed Sacralist and reports history in a manner that suits him.