Het Roer Om!*

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We are come together here this evening in order to inaugurate this newly established organization in the presence of God. When they to whom the preparation of this meeting was entrusted invited me to address a few words to you, I did not hesitate for a moment to accede to their request. For it is no everyday occurrence to call in to being here in America an association which has as its purpose the promotion of Christian cultural action. Rightly understood such a movement constitutes a radical change in our course of action. It is to throw the rudder over! From now on we sail in another direction. Something great is here being accomplished.

In the first place we can see here the historical act. To reproduce in brief the meaning of this act we can do no better than to make use of the words which were spoken by Abraham Kuyper on Oct. 20, 1880 at the solemn opening ceremonies of the Free University. “I do not exaggerate,” he said at that time, “it is setting ourselves against all that is called great, it is rowing against the current of a world of scholarship, against the course of an entire century, what we are venturing with the establishment of this (association).” Thus it was at that time. Such is the case also now.

The rudder has been thrown over. And therewith a protest is being lodged against the style of life which has historically developed in this land.

One would however do wrong if one supposed that it were possible to detect in what has just been said traces of self-conceit and pride, For the intention of our words is not properly grasped unless, in the second place, we see in the establishment of this Association the act of faith, an action which stems from the obedience of faith, it “piece of faith,” as Kuyper once called the founding of the Free University. There is thus nothing of pride here; but much of humility, The men who have united themselves in this action gladly take for themselves the words which Kuyper used in connection with those who founded the Free University, He said: “We would prefer to remain in the background. To see that others came forward would be so much more restful [or us. But now that this was not possible, we were obliged to take action, And so we called to the forefront; far indeed, from indifferent to the antipathies or inclinations of men; but determining our policy exclusively by what we take to be demanded by the norm of the honor of our God.”



Of their own impotence our brethren are thoroughly aware. They realize how ridiculously small in number we here this evening actually are. They know too that the number of people who are in sympathy with their action—or shortly will begin to be so—will, under even the most favorable conditions, remain extremeIy small. But it is characteristic or the world to weigh and balance the probabilities of success. Something else marks the Christian. We trust in the Lord, who established his gracious Covenant with our fathers, but also with us and our children. This God has set the norm for our whole life; in accordance therewith we have to act. Surely, this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, Ours is to trust, to obey; all the rest God bestows upon us freely by grace. It is with us just as it was with Abraham, the father of the faithful. “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed, to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went…wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city” (italics inserted).

Indeed, God prepared for them a city! That is still the confidence of believers. We too count on that. Such a way of lire the world calls foolishness; for us who believe it is highest wisdom, profoundest blessedness, the certainty, of our existence that stems from the Jehovah’s faithfulness, Our brethren have, in the light of God’s Word, drawn the conclusion that they were not at liberty to act except as they have acted in the launching of this Association. They know that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The rest they leave to God. Of this action too which we inaugurate tonight we must say: Our God will do it. And so, in this obedience of faith, in this confidence of faith they find the courage to cry out to their fellow believers: “Come, work with us! Our faith, Christian brothers, is the victory which overcomes the world.”

Right here, however, I must attempt to prevent a possible misunderstanding, as if we are trying to maintain in this new land, this new environment which appears quite strange to most of us, a European; particularly, a Dutch way of life. This very week I heard a brother say, “Oh! those people can’t stop playing Dutchman.” To that remark–let me say it briefly—there’s not a single grain of truth. And we may not allow that idea to find lodgement. For, though it is surely a misunderstanding, it is still much more: It is an assault upon our God-given principle of life.

First of all, then, I should like to ask him who fancies that he may so judge where he gets the idea of calling antithetical Christian action “Dutch.” For most Netherlanders have never been sympathetic to such action. The Dutch Calvinists have. But then it is no question of national custom, but one of Christian conviction. Therefore we have to ascertain as a matter of fact what led our brothers-in-faith in the Netherlands of the last century to initiate antithetical organization. When we do that, when we study the life and work of men like Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, we come with them to the conviction that antithetical Christian cultural action is the necessary result of our conversion from the spirit of this age to the service of God with our whole heart. Conversion is the beginning of our life, beginning and principle (begin en beginsel) together. But a beginning presupposes further advance and a principle implies a working-out or elaboration. Now, that further advance and that working-out we find in our cultural action. What our spiritual fathers in The Netherlands saw clearly was the fact that a new life-direction in man, heart must necessarily manifest itself in a new mode of living, in a new cultural form. That is why they felt that they had to throw the rudder over.

It will be worth our while to dwell on this point for just a moment. If we see the cultural action of all peoples as the carrying-out of the cultural mandate which God enjoined upon mankind before the Fall, then we can understand that a cultural community is in every instance based on a faith and thus is made a unity. In this connection, however, we may never forget that the Fall itself effected a cleavage in the cultural life of the nations. Since then it is impossible for us to speak unreservedly of the unity of culture. “The unity of a people or a cultural community,” to use the words of K.J. Popma, “means sometimes an unstable balance, is based sometimes upon coercion, sometimes also on the fact that a numerically weak upper layer, living’ on a relatively high level of culture, rules over the masses, which remain fettered in the static form of an undeveloped—so-called primitive culture. Where coercion and static undevelopedness are missing, the internal tensions come clearly into view. A premature cultural optimism—I am still citing Popma—“wanted to see in the fact that those tensions were there a sign of vital force. Compared with the undeveloped state and the coercion the condition of internal tensions is indeed a somewhat purer form, but in actuality those tensions are the expression of a rent in the life of faith, that is, of a dividedness in the cultural ideal.” So far Popma.

Of course, not all the tensions in cultural life are immediate manifestations of the fundamental religious antithesis. As soon as men no longer recognized the divine law as their norm, they also experienced discord among themselves.

Once however, in modern history, that fundamental difference came to clear expression, namely, in the difference between the parties of the Renaissance and of the Reformation. Both groups were opposed to the doctrine of an ecclesiastically-mediated regeneration as that had developed in the church of the Middle Ages. But while the men of the Renaissance preached the regeneration of man by his own power, the Reformation ascribed the quickening to God. Luther amI Calvin place in the foreground the relation of human life to God. Consequently not speculative ontology but religion, even more, God himself and his revelation hold the center of attention. And religion was here conceived not as a kind of subjectivistic introverted piety, but as the directedness of the heart or center of life towards God himself, a directedness which governs all the rest of our (outward) existence.

Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were deeply religious movements, but they stand antithetically over against each other as Left and Right.

With the beginning of the 17th century there comes an important change in the European situation. Partly as a consequence of the exhausting religious wars religious fervor begins to dissipate. This retrogression naturally took its worst toll in the camp of the Reformation, where Melancthon and Gomarus, for example, neglecting their own peculiar calling in the giving of form to culture, had effected a tie or synthesis of Christian thought with the heathen Aristotle. The Renaissance too, however, displays a serious contraction of the field of interest. Her deeply religious note soon dies away. In the centuries immediately ensuing the dominant question was no longer, “How can we get a new man?” but rather, “How can we construct a new culture?” Note that the setting of the problem is here much less central, for culture flows forth from man himself. In the solution of this new problem men build their hopes primarily on science, on scientific thought. Thus the sovereignty of man, proclaimed by the Renaissance, levels off in the thought of the rationalism of the next century to the sovereignty of reason (Latin: ratio). And now in this rationalisitic phase of the development of European culture the Reformation party of the Right gradualIy finds itself, for one thing because of its readiness to make a compromise with heathen thought, on the background. The cultural leadership or Europe falls into the hands of the party of the Left, the now diminished Renaissance. The day approaches when the Christian religion is to become almost exclusively the possession of the kleine luyden (“little people”–a term used with great affection by Abraham Kuyper) .

These main lines of development we had to pass in review briefly in order that the colossal historical significance of the reformatory work of Groen and Kuyper might come to a clear focus. For it was this rationalistic phase of development of European culture with which these heroes of faith had to contend. Therefore, with your permission, I shall say it little more about this rationalism, which was the dominant feature in the European culture and society of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

What especially marks this rationalism is its view of man. For every form of culture proceeds, consciously or unconsciously, from such a view of man. And now, the rationalist viewed man as a rational animal or being. In his view the reason was thus the core or heart of our whole human existence. There was nothing in man that lay deeper, and which could thus give direction and particularity to his thought. Reason was the basis, therefore autonomous, a law unto itself. This construction stands opposed to the biblical view, where most typical for human life is religion, and where all the life-functions are the expression of the obedient or disobedient (to the law of God) heart. ‘Whereas this latter view, as we have already seen, reveals the human race to us as divided into two camps or Kingdoms, the rationalist witnesses precisely to the unity of all men. The reason, the core or center of human existence, functions always and everywhere in just the same way, does it not?

And now the important point in all this for us here is that this contrast between the Christian and the rationalistic view of man is also determinative for the view taken as to human cultural effort. The Christian recognizes a division, a religious and therefore fundamental cleavage in the formulation of the cultural ideal, of the purpose or end for which we work. The rationalist, who views all men, as rational beings, alike, places the whole emphasis upon a common cultural effort. Cultural action must, therefore, be the work of the community, viewed then of course as a unit of rational-moral beings historically grown together into a unity. Rationalism thus manifests itself as a cultural effort which seeks to unite men by laying upon their consciences the false faith of the worship of the reason. This fact became especially clear in the time of Leibniz and the so-called Aufklaerung or Enlightenment.

How did these “enlightened” men conceive the place of religion in human life? As a matter of private opinion. As the peculiarity of the individual. But in no sense may this religion have anything to do with our thinking and the organizing of our social and cultural life. For religion divides men, but our task is to unite men. And the latter is possible, according to rationalism; for by thinking right men come to agreement. That is why Roosevelt, for example, once expected to come to an agreement with Joseph Stalin when the psychological disturbances and the historically grown up misunderstandings had been cleared away and the pure light of reason shone softly over the conference table. Only it didn’t turn out that way! For rationalism is an apostate faith and man is no “rational being.” Even in his thought functions a man either recognizes the law of God as the norm for human existence or he rises up in revolt against it.

Thus we understand that neither the conservatives nor the liberals of Groen’s day displayed any patience when a religious motivation was given for pursuing a certain political policy. Cultural activities must always be motivated only by a universally valid, rationally conceivable principle, isn’t that so? After his conversion, however, Groen van Prinsterer began to see more and more clearly that there was no place, in institutions based upon faith in reason, for confessing the Gospel. But there was one thing that for him was incontestable: no matter what the cost he had to be in every area of life, yes, also in the political arena, a Gospel-confessor. Thus he came gradually to see that Gospel-confessors ought to have their own Christian political action. That every Christian heart repeats after Groen, also the American Christian. To existing institutions we may not accommodate ourselves, if such institutions are not neutral, but are positively the expression of an apostate faith.

It can readily be established that faith in reason which characterized the period of the Enlightenment was likewise the governing principle in the organization of our Republic. One need read but little in the correspondence and writings of our founding fathers in order to be convinced of this fact. And that is the source of our common political parties and our common labor organizations. Right down the line, everywhere, there is common cultural action. Action of the community, of the people, regardless of the religious convictions of the participants. For a culture is built up on the basis of concepts of the reason, which are accessible to all men, not as believing Christian, or humanist, but merely as rational beings.

For this reason I feel compelled at this meeting to issue an earnest warning against the way in which the question of cultural action is presently being handled in our circles. We get, for example, articles to read on Calvinism and political action, which simply ignore the fore-going analysis. It is uncritically supposed that we as believing individuals can support a party in which one has an ear only for the universally valid, rational argument. Brethren and sisters in the faith, not only the individual, but also the principle in accordance with which and on the basis of which the organization takes place, must be Christian. Yet there are those, even in our circles, who are enthusiastic supporters of such a thing as Citizens’ Action here in Grand Rapids. I ask these brethren, Can you in the meetings of that organization frame a program of action with an appeal to the commandments of our God? To such a question one can only answer, No. But if there should be someone who would say, Yes, I can do that, I would immediately reply by saying, Then you cannot mean it when you say Citizens Action, and when you expressly inform us that you are organized without regard to race, creed, or color. For then the humanistic participant, for example, has completely lost his equal rights in your organization.

Just in this connection such terrible sins are committed in our circles with the terms “general revelation” and “common grace.” For that reason I wish to read a short section from one of our confessional statements, the Canons of Dort, heads three and four, article four:

There remain, however, in man since the Fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light such as it is, man, in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God (italics inserted).

Do we verily believe that? Do we really believe that we must openly witness in all the areas of life that Jesus Christ is the true Savior of our entire culture, and that we must posit that witness as the basis of our communal efforts? Certain it is that the common organizational structure of the rationalist is not suitable for us. To we must constantly conceal our deepest convictions behind the mask o( universally valid argumentations. then our Christian witness is rather hindered than developed.

That is why the organizing committee and the members of this Association for the advancement of Christian cultural action, and many others with them, have said, The rudder must be thrown over here in America too. We must exercise our influence upon the development of this huge nation by way of separate Christian organizations. May our God grant that the Christian population everywhere will give heed to this call!

On closing, I quote once more the words of Abraham Kuyper (with the necessary adaptations): “Thus our small Association enters into the world with its very name embarrassed to the point of blushing, with little financial resources, but very soberly endowed with scientific forces, and with little appeal to the good graces of men. What, then, shall be its destiny and life? Oh, the thousand questions connected with its future, they cannot press and crowd into your doubting thought more strongly than they have stormed in our hearts. Only by looking again and again to our holy principle did our heavy head, after every dash of the waves that struck over us, raise itself again bravely out of the waters. Indeed were this thing not out of the Mighty One of Jacob, how could it maintain itself?”

The future of this organization too rests with God. But there—who of us will confess it?—there our life is safer than anywhere else. May we all remain true to the law of life which has been revealed to us by our Lord and Savior. Then in faith we can pray with the Psalmist, “And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.”