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Preaching In The Dutch Calvinist Tradition (2)

Category Articles
Date July 20, 2006

In the previous installment we traced the roots of the New School Dutch Calvinistic preaching. This type of preaching is characterized by historical-redemptive rather than an exemplary approach to Scripture. Rejecting what it considers the individualistic, subjective, mystical and experiential elements in Old School Calvinistic preaching, it emphasizes the covenantal, objective and corporate aspects of the Word of God. Generally speaking, New School preaching tends to be inclusive, optimistic, idealistic, and rarely issues calls to self-examination.

Roots of Old School Calvinistic Preaching

Let us now take a look at the roots of traditional or historic Calvinistic preaching in The Netherlands. These roots are to be found in both the Reformation of the sixteenth and the Second Reformation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Neo-Calvinists have often charged that everything they found objectionable, such as subjectivism, individualism, marks of grace and discriminating preaching, must be attributed to the influence of Puritanism and Pietism. These movements, they charge, have steered the Dutch Reformed in the wrong direction, away from the pure Calvinism of Geneva.

It cannot be denied that Dutch Calvinism as it was found in the Reformed Churches prior to Abraham Kuyper’s ascendancy, and in several denominations even today, has been greatly influenced by Puritanism and to a lesser extent by German Pietism.

Puritanism, both in its British and Dutch varieties, was not only concerned with the salvation and sanctification of individuals. At least in its early stages, Puritans aimed also at the reformation of the Church as a whole, and society as well.

Dutch Puritans and their Concerns

The Dutch Puritans, even more than their English counterparts, had reason to be thankful for what the Reformation had accomplished in their land. The Reformed Church had become the established church in the Netherlands, and especially after the great Synod of Dort, sound doctrine was preached from all its pulpits. Yet the more discerning among the Dutch clergy realized that purity of doctrine alone is not sufficient. They knew that unless a sound profession was adorned by a holy walk, the Reformation would eventually lose its hold on the people. Consequently, they began to work towards a more thoroughgoing reformation.

Concerned about the growing number of nominal Christians in the church, the Puritan-minded preachers began to differentiate between true and false converts and they showed from Scripture the marks of a believer and a hypocrite.

That some of these men went too far in their zeal to separate the precious from the vile was to be expected. And that some became disillusioned when they saw that in spite of all their efforts to reform the church and society, things remained pretty much the same, so that they gave up and began to withdraw into conventicles of like-minded believers – that too is understandable. But despite the shortcomings and failures of some of them, the Dutch Puritans on the whole, were truly God-fearing men with a real burden for souls and a deep concern for the glory of God.


Characteristic of Dutch Puritan preaching is that it was objective-subjective. Calvinists of the Old School believed, and still believe that true, biblical preaching ought to be explication and application of God’s Word. By application they do not just mean relevant preaching, in the sense that the preacher should apply his text to everyday life. That, to be sure, has to be done also. But by application they mean rather the subjective appropriation on the part of the hearers of that which is preached. Against the objection of the Neo-Calvinists that such application is the work of the Holy Spirit and should therefore he left to Him, Old Calvinists insist that while it is indeed the Spirit Who applies the Word, preachers must so divide the Word as to give the Spirit something to apply.

About seventy years ago, Rev. I. Kievit, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (Alliance), and a prominent representative of the Old Calvinist school of preaching, wrote a book entitled Objective-Subjective preaching: The Demand of Holy Scripture. In this book the author first explains the philosophic distinction between objective and subjective and then says this about objective preaching:

“Objective preaching speaks about faith, conversion, repentance, God, salvation, and Christ. It deals with the truth, but it is without life and without experience. There is no heartbeat in such preaching. The preacher delivers an essay or discourse, but it is dead and spiritless. Such preaching petrifies and genders pride, for historical faith is considered to be saving faith. In fact, objective preaching is not administration of the Word. For it does not explain how Christ becomes the possession of the sinner. Of course, the preacher will say that it is by faith, but how that faith is worked by grace or how it is exercised, you don’t hear.”

And then he gives his advice to ministers of the Word:

The preacher must not only point to Christ and speak of the promises that are given, but he must also speak about the exercises of the heart in regard to the appropriation of the promises and their fulfilment in our life. The preacher must not only explain who Christ is and for whom He came into the world, but he must also point out the way that leads to Christ. He must not only point to the necessity of Christ but also how Christ and the lost sinner are brought together [all italics in this quotation mine, C.P.] this faith relationship is established, and how Christ makes room for Himself in the sinner’s heart. Many of these elements are missing in sermons today and therefore the people receive stones for bread and they start to look elsewhere for food. Of course, the objective element comes first. We can and may only draw the fullness of the objective truths from Scripture. But the subjective experiences and exercises may never be forgotten. These things also belong to the body of the sermon. If they are missing, the sermon cannot be called Scriptural. [1]

These excerpts clearly show that this minister stood firmly in the Puritan Reformed tradition. That tradition, however, does not begin in the seventeenth century with the fathers of Dort, as some charge, but with Calvin and the other Reformers. It is very significant that most of the quotations in Kievit’s book are not from representatives of the Second Reformation, as one would expect, but rather from John Calvin. For instance, he quotes the great Reformer as saying this about the purpose of preaching:

“The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God, the fountain of all felicity, communicate Christ to us who are separated from God by sin and hence ruined, that we may from Him enjoy eternal life; that in a word, all heavenly treasures be so applied to us that they be no less ours than Christ’s Himself. [2]

Calvin’s View of Preaching

Calvin believed that in the preaching of the Word there are two ill ministers at work: the external minister who holds forth the vocal word which is received by the ears, and the internal minister or Holy Spirit, Who “by His secret virtue effects ill the hearts of whomsoever He will their union with Christ through faith.” [3] Apart from this applicatory work of the Holy Spirit, Calvin says, “Christ remains of no value to us, and therefore at a great distance from us.” It is the Spirit Who takes the Christ “out there” and brings Him to us, causing Him to dwell in our hearts by faith, which He works in us by His secret operation.

Thus Calvin clearly distinguished between the objective and the subjective aspects of preaching; therefore those who try to do away with this distinction cannot appeal to him for support.

Response to Calvin’s View

The men of tile “New Direction” were fully aware that Calvin followed the exemplary method of preaching. Dr. D. Van Dijk credits Dr. J. Douma with irrefutably and clearly demonstrating that the Reformer of Geneva considered himself to be called by God to preach sacred history in an exemplary manner, and that not only Calvin, but all the Reformed preachers held that conviction [5]. But this admission did not dissuade them from levelling a scathing critique on that time honoured method.

Dr. H. Bavinck

Another characteristic of Dutch Calvinistic preaching of the Old school is that it is discriminating. While Neo-Calvinists maintain that preachers have no right to separate between those who have made profession of faith lest they should cause believers to doubt their state, the Old Calvinists insist on such separation. Dr. H. Bavinck, who came out of the Old Calvinist school of the Secession of 1834, followed Kuyper in many things, but he disagreed with his colleague’s doctrine of presumptive regeneration, which fostered this non-discriminatory preaching. In his book Calling and Regeneration, he warns against a type of preaching that assumes that all professing believers in a given congregation are saved. Because such preaching proceeds from the ideal, it fails to appreciate reality and ignores the lessons of history. The result is that faith in the confession is confused with the confession of faith, and a dead orthodoxy, which contents itself with an intellectual consent to doctrine, is fostered. Under such preaching, Bavinck warns,

“there is but little concern about the disposition of the heart and the purity of life. As Israel rested on its descent from Abraham and on the temple that was in their midst, so many members of the New Testament church are beginning to build their hopes for eternity on the external ecclesiastical privileges wherein they share: baptism, confession, the Lord’s Supper, and thus they fall into a false complacency. Although the church is a gathering of true believers in Christ, there must yet constantly go forth in her midst the summons to faith and repentance.” [6]

Calvin’s Institutes and Commentaries

Again, the above statements of Bavinck have their roots, not just in Puritanism, which, as we know, insisted on a discriminating ministry, but also in the Reformation and in Calvin. Both in his commentaries and in his Institutes he makes clear that he does not believe that all who profess Christ are truly in Christ. For instance, commenting on Acts 11:23, which tells of Barnabas exhorting believers to cleave unto the Lord with purpose of heart, Calvin says this:

“We learn from Barnabas’ definition of the way to persevere, as continuing with purpose of heart, that faith has put down living roots only when it is grounded in the heart. Accordingly, it is no wonder that hardly one in ten of the number of those who profess the faith persevere right to the end, since very few know the meaning of good-will and purpose of heart.” [7]

Again, commentating on Psam 15:1, ‘Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill’ he writes,

“David saw the temple crowded with a great multitude of men who all made a profession of the same religion, and presented themselves before God as to the outward ceremony; and, therefore, assuming the person of one wondering at the spectacle, he directs his discourse to God, who, in such a confusion and medley of characters, could easily distinguish his own people from strangers.”

This is how he applies this passage:

“As we too often we see the Church of God defaced by much impurity, to prevent us from stumbling at what appears so offensive, a distinction is made between those who are permanent citizens of the Church, and strangers-who are mingled among them for a time. God’s sacred barn-floor will not be perfectly cleansed before the last day, when Christ at His coming will cast out the chaff; but He has already begun to do this by the doctrine of his gospel, which on this account He terms a fan” [8]

Calvin and Covenant Membership

Neo-Calvinists, as we saw, try to combat individualism with a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of the covenant, and they often appeal to Calvin, who, they claim, also stressed the importance of this key doctrine of Scripture. This is true, but unlike some of his modern disciples, Calvin did not make membership in the covenant a kind of admission ticket to heaven. He taught, indeed, that as Abraham and his seed were adopted into the covenant of grace, so New Testament believers and their children are included in the same covenant. He even called covenant membership a general election, which he, however, distinguished from particular election. In a sermon on Deuteronomy 10: 15-17 Calvin explains his view on the covenant this way:

“But meanwhile let us note that there has been a general election which pertains to all the people [the Jews], which deserves to be highly esteemed; however, it does not profit unless each one for his own part is participating in it . . . See here. . .the election of God whereby he puts such difference between the lineage of Abraham and all the rest of the world . . . Lo, here is an election which pertains in general to all the children of Abraham, but it was necessary that such a grace was to be ratified by faith. . . For we see that many of them were cut off. . . Now, then, the election of God which extended itself to all the people was not sufficient, but it was necessary that each one should be a participant of it for himself. How? By faith. But let us see from whence faith proceeds: God has willed to confirm his grace in those in whom it pleased him to do so. . . Lo, here a double election of God. The one extends itself to all the people, because circumcision was given indifferently to all . . . and the promises likewise were common. However, it is necessary that God add a second grace, namely, that he touches the hearts of his elect . . . and these come to him, and he causes them to receive the good which is offered them. [9]

Concluding Remarks

Membership in the covenant or visible church, then, while a great blessing and privilege, does not guarantee salvation. There has to be faith and all other graces that accompany salvation, such as repentance, sorrow for sin, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, a close walk with God, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. These things must be insisted on in our preaching. For unless it comes to what the Puritans called a closing with Christ,” unless we as wretched and undone sinners learn to cast ourselves on God’s mercy revealed in His dear Son, yes, unless God embraces our souls and accepts us in the Beloved, our religion is but a shell, and an outward show. The men of the “New Direction” may call this sickly mysticism, but without this experiential, that is individual, personal and intimate heart knowledge, we remain dry and dead bones that no amount of exegetically correct preaching can bring to life.

We can learn much from the redemptive-historical method of preaching, but we make a huge mistake if we neglect the exemplary and discriminating aspects of biblical proclamation. Without pointed, serious yet warm and loving application, the sermon may instruct the mind, but it will not reach the heart in a life changing, saving way. The Old Calvinists understood this. Therefore they preached as they did, with a sense of urgency, knowing that the eternal destiny of their hearers was at stake. As Richard Baxter used to say:

I preached as never sure to preach again,

And as a dying man to dying men.

Baxter’s preaching and that of many Puritans was a Spirit – anointed and Spirit – dependent preaching, “not in word only but also in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance” (1 Thess.1:5). That kind of preaching has been blessed by God for centuries, not just during Puritan times or the Reformation era, but from the days of the apostles. Such preaching cannot be learned in a seminary, not even the best one, but only in the school and at the feet of Him who calls to the ministry only those who are first converted themselves, before they go out to convert others. May the Lord thrust forth many such labourers into His harvest (Luke 10:2).


[1]Kieviet Voorwerpelijke-Onderwerpelijke Prediking, Eisch der Heilige Schrift, pp. 62-65.
[2]J. Calvin: Theological Treatises, Ed. By J.K.S. Reid, p. 171
[3]Ibid., p. 173.
[4]J. Calvin, Institutes, III, 1,3.
[5]S. Greidanus, Sola Srriptura, p. 29.
[6]Summarized by A Hoekema, “Two Types of Preaching,” Reformed Journal, May 1966.
[7]J. Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. I, p. 330.
[8]Ibid, Vol.V, p. 249.
[9]Quoted by Dr. A Hoekema, “The Covenant of Grace in Calvin’s Teaching,” in Calvin Theological Journal, Vol 2, No.2, November 1967, p. 151.

Reprinted by permission from The Messenger, June 2006

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