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Preaching In The Dutch Calvinist Tradition (1)

Category Articles
Date July 18, 2006


Every religion has certain characteristics that sets it apart from its rivals. There are different traditions, customs, rituals, ceremonies, modes of worship and styles of preaching. Limiting ourselves to Christianity and preaching, there is a marked difference, for instance, between Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal and Reformed or Calvinistic preaching. It does not require a high degree of religious sophistication to be able to recognize certain unique characteristics both in content and delivery when listening to preachers from different backgrounds and traditions. This is true also of Dutch Calvinistic preaching. Whereas there is something distinctive about this kind of preaching, there are also important differences when it comes to sermon content and emphases.

Old and New School Dutch Calvinists

Broadly speaking, Dutch Calvinistic preaching may be divided into two categories. First, there are the Old school or traditional Calvinists who insist on experimental or experiential preaching. This branch of Calvinism is found in several smaller denominations in the Netherlands such as the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (Christian Reformed or FRC); Gereformeerde Gemeenten (Netherlands Reformed Congregations), Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten (Old Reformed Congregations), the Reformed Alliance, a conservative group within the recently organized Protestantse Kcrk in Nederland (Protestant Church in the Netherlands) and various smaller splinter groups. [1]

Then there are the so-called Neo-Calvinists, represented in the Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands), which have recently amalgamated with the above-mentioned PKN, and also in the Vrijgemaakte Kerken (Liberated Churches). Despite important differences between these two federations, they arc both averse to experiential preaching as found in Old Calvinist circles. [2]

Exemplary or Redemptive-Historical Preaching

In the nineteen thirties the Dutch Reformed community went through a prolonged controversy between those advocating “exemplary” or moralistic preaching and those insisting on a strictly “redemptive-historical” approach. The spokesmen for the latter included Dr. K. Schilder, who may he called the originator of the redemptive-historical method, B. Holwerda, C. Veenhof, D. Van Dijk and J. Spier. These men complained about the method most ministers at that time (1920s and 30s) were using in preaching historical texts. Their main objection was that those who used this method tended to hold up historical characters as examples to be followed – hence the term “exemplary” preaching. They charged that thus no justice could be done to the meaning of the text.

“The point at issue,” said Van Dijk, “is not primarily whether the truths proclaimed are biblical, but whether these truths are actually revealed in the preaching-text. Ministry of the Word . . . is to proclaim to the congregation that message which God gives in the text. [Hence] when one studies the text, he must try to discover its special content. That specific content must be preached, not notions however beautiful – which could equally well be tacked onto other texts. [3]

Defenders of the “exemplary” method were quick to point out that their opponents with their “redemptive-historical” approach reduced sermons to dry lectures on Bible history with no relevant application for the hearers. While the advocates of the “redemptive-historical” method have raised some very legitimate questions regarding the proper exegesis of Scripture, they went much too far in their rejection of the “exemplary” approach.

The New Direction

It is no coincidence that almost all the representatives of the redemptive-historical school were members of the Association for Calvinistic Philosophy. This Association was formed in 1935, shortly after the publication of H. Dooyeweerd’s Philosophy of the Law-Idea.

What characterizes the “Dooyeweerdians” is an almost excessive concern with culture and the externals of religion, and a corresponding de-emphasis on the more inward and spiritual side of religion. The same men who were critical of the “exemplary” method of preaching, also objected to what they regarded as latent pietism with its three daughters: subjectivism, individualism and spiritualism. These, they said, were the historical roots of the Dutch Calvinistic churches, and they saw themselves as the apostles of the “New Direction.”

Over against the alleged subjectivism of the exemplary-minded preachers, they advocated not objectivism, as one might expect, but rather what they termed the normative character of preaching. According to Spier, “The Word of God is neither objective nor subjective… [but] the power of God unto salvation…it is the dominating norm for our lives.” And C. Veenhof adds: “Scripture is kerygma, address and appeal… [and] in it God lays hold on us. Scripture may never be divorced from the speaking God: it is His Word. Christ is present in the Word; He stands behind it as the divine Logos; the Word is never without His Spirit; Word and Spirit always go together.” [4]

In this way, the men of the “New Direction” sought to overcome the age-old subjective-objective dilemma. But the attempt has failed. When all is said and done, they did only succeed in getting rid of the subjective element in the preaching and as a result sermons became exegetical treatises with very little spiritual application. As one of Schilder’s opponents commented: “Schilder’s sermons were not much different from his lectures. They were intellectualistic in character, and preponderantly objective, and the application merely consisted of ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'” If this sounds biased, here’s what a close friend said of Schilder’s pulpit work: “His sermons were always dominated by stringent objectivity; he was averse to all subjectivism and mysticism. He also disliked applications because he realized their worthlessness.” [5]

Covenantal Versus Individualistic Preaching

The second characteristic of pietism as defined by Schilder and his associates, is individualism. This “disease” they tried to cure with a renewed emphasis on the covenant. The reason why this was thought to be such an effective weapon against individualism becomes clear from the following statement of S.C. DeGraaf. He says in his book, Promise and Deliverance, “In the covenant God always draws near to His people as a whole – never just to individuals. Because of the covenant, the entire people rests secure in God’s faithfulness, and every individual member of the covenant shares in that rest as a member of the community.” [6]

The third characteristic of pietism, according to the men of the “New Direction,” was spiritualism, or as Neo-Calvinists preferred to call it, mysticism. This word became a kind of catch-all term covering everything that was considered undesirable in religion. Mysticism was thought to be responsible for anthropocentricism (man-centredness), the nature-grace dichotomy, introversion, excessive self-examination, lack of assurance, etc., etc. Schilder accused those given to mystical tendencies of turning the attention away from the world outside and closing the eye “to what God has wrought and will work on the broad highways of redemptive and revelational history.” All that remains, he concluded, “is God and the soul embracing each other.” [7] He felt that the only way to rid the church of these mystical tendencies was to stress once again the great Reformation theme of Sola Scriptura, and to proclaim the relevance of God’s Word for all areas of life.

From what has been said so far one could easily conclude that the Reformed churches in the thirties were full of subjectivists, individualists and mystics, and that the criticisms of Schilder and others were really called for. But were these evils really so widespread in these churches of which Schilder was still a member at that time? No, they were not. There were, indeed, some within the Calvinist camp whose piety was unhealthy and mystical in the wrong sense of that word. But this was not the case in the major Reformed denominations. What the men of the “New Direction” were objecting to was not the excesses of a wrong kind of experimental preaching, but rather the remnants of a healthy, biblical experimental preaching, which at one time had characterized all of Dutch Calvinism. J.H. Bavinck, one of the defenders of the “exemplary” school, diagnosed the real nature of his opponent’s attack when he wrote, “the new spirit is averse to the soul’s religious experiences and the inner marks of the Christian.” [8]

Objections Against Discriminating Preaching

As might be expected, the New school was also opposed to discriminating preaching, because such preaching assumes that the visible church is made up of converted and unconverted people. While recognizing the possibility that there may be some hypocrites within the congregation, the “redemptive-historical” men objected vigorously to any preaching which addressed itself to different types of hearers. Here is what the Rev. D.Van Dijk wrote:

“The preacher who has accepted a confessional church which excommunicates all who demonstrate in their lives that they do not belong to the Lord’s congregation, does not have the right to sift the people once more when addressing them…. The preacher who does this commits three wrongs: he insults the church of Christ by addressing it as a mixed multitude; he harms the church of Christ because believers may begin to doubt and hypocrites tend to close their ears at the familiar refrain; and finally, he retards the upbuilding of the church because his view of the hearers is bound to distort the goal and content of his sermons” [9]

The above statement points up the essential difference between the traditional or Old school Calvinism, and the “New Direction” or New school Calvinism. These two schools, although having a common origin in the Reformation, may be traced to quite different developments in subsequent Reformed history.

Kuyper’s Neo-Calvinism

The “redemptive-historical” school of preaching, as was pointed out, was and is espoused by men influenced by Dooyeweerd’s Philosophy of the Law-Idea. This philosophy in turn, has its roots in the Neo-Calvinism of Dr. A. Kuyper. This giant among theologians dominated the whole theological scene in the Netherlands for over forty years (1880-1920). Kuyper was a great man, but as often happens with such men, they can make great mistakes too.

Presumptive Regeneration

One of his greatest mistakes, certainly from the point of view of the Old Calvinists, was his doctrine of presumptive regeneration. Kuyper propounded the thesis that children born of believing parents must be presumed to be regenerated and dealt with as such. This soon came to mean that being born into the covenant was almost a guarantee that one would go to heaven. To be sure, Kuyper himself stressed the need for self-examination, but as time went on, the call to soul-searching was heard less and less, until the men of the “New Direction” called for an end of this practice altogether for reasons already mentioned. The result was that a new generation of covenant children grew up who never learned the meaning of John 3:3. Many of these children grew up to become ministers, and it is to be feared that not a few of them were strangers to experiential religion.

Here we have, if not the cause, then certainly a cause of the present malaise in the Dutch Reformed churches. When men who have not experienced the new birth themselves become ministers in the church of Christ, they will do little more than perpetuate error and emphasize at best only the intellectual side of religion, and not its spiritual or experiential aspects. Preaching will be objective, rather than subjective, and the call to faith will result in people giving mental assent to the truths of Scripture. In other words, there will be historical, rather than saving faith.

Also, in such an environment the “fruits” of faith are likely to be outwardly oriented, rather than inwardly directed. Where historical faith is mistaken for saving faith, there will he an effort made, of course, to let that faith come to expression. Well, in Neo-Calvinist circles faith has come to expression in an unprecedented interest in and concern for culture and the so-called cultural mandate. As William Young says in his article, “Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism”:

“Culture is now understood in the widest possible sense, to include economic and political activity as well as the arts and, thus understood, is made to become the preoccupation of the Reformed Christian. Calvinism ceases to be concerned above all with the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of the elect, but becomes a label to cover aesthetic dilettantism and political activism. [10]


[1] The Reformed Alliance no longer exists in a formal sense because the Dutch Reformed Church, together with the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands associated with Abraham. Kuyper (GKN), and the Lutheran Church of the Netherlands have formed a new denomination, the Protestant Church of the Netherlands (PKN). Most of the Alliance churches have decided to go along with this merger, be it with great reluctance and after much protest. A small number of these churches, however, could not in good conscience join this new denomination and have reorganized themselves under the name Restored Reformed Church (HHK).
[2] William Young, “Historical Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism,” in The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXVI, Fall 1973, No. 1, p. 48.
[3] Ibid., p.42.
[4] Ibid., pp. 153,154.
[5] Ibid., p. 180.
[6] S.D. DeGraaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. I, p.24.
[7] Greidanus, Sola Scriptura, p. 38.
[8] Ibid., p. 87.
[9] Ibid., p. 97.
[10] William Young, “Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism,” in WTJ, Vol. XXXVII, Winter 1974, No.2, p.169.

[Taken with permission from The Messenger, Volume 53, No.5, May 2006, the magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of North America edited by Cornelius Pronk]

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