Proposed Restructuring of the Free Reformed University

Since the year 1880 there exists in The Netherlands an organization called “The Association for Scientific Education on Reformed Basis.” It is this organization which has been the sponsoring and directing agency behind the Free University of Amsterdam. This University never wanted to be a church school in the specific sense of that word. Nevertheless Article 4 of its Constitution stipulated that its education was to be given “entirely and exclusively on the basis of the Reformed principles.” The Theological Faculty, moreover, was expected to teach in accordance with the Three Forms of Unity, the confessional documents to which the Synod of Dordrecht subscribed.

For a considerable period of time there has been a discussion about a possible change in the formulation of the basis of the Free University. Two recent articles in the church press of The Netherlands, one by Professor Dr. D. Nauta (Centraal Weekblad, August 29, 1970) and one by Rev. E. Masselink (Waarheid en Eenheid, June 23, 1970), are devoted to the questions which have arisen in connection with this proposed change. Dr. Nauta points out that the press thus far has paid little attention to this matter but that the issue nevertheless is of great importance. With this the present writer heartily agrees. For this reason a short digest with comments from the articles mentioned is here presented to the English reading public.

Proposed change for “Reformed principles” – It appears that there have been objections raised against the use of the expression “Reformed principles” as a basis for the Free University’s educational program. The new formulation of the University’s program as now proposed reads: “on the basis of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which, according to the revelation in Holy Scripture, calls man in his whole life to the service and glorification of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therein to the service of fellow-man.”

Along with the actual proposal for a change in the school’s constitution an explanatory document has been circulated in which the proposed changes are further elucidated. In this document the view is presented that the new formulation is tantamount to a religious choice but it is also maintained that in the new basis formula the “Reformed principles” of the older formulation have been retained in “concentrated form.” Dr. Nauta is of the opinion, however, that the new approach constitutes a different structure and a different concept of scientific study from that held by Abraham Kuyper, the originator of the Free University. To take one’s position in the “religious choice” (Dutch: positiebepaling, fixing of position ) does not mean that one contests Kuyper’s conception. It does mean that one lets go of it, thus Nauta.

This is also admitted in so many words in the clarification. To speak of “Reformed principles,” thus this document, turned out to be an impassable road. In practice it proved to be incapable of realization. Yet, and this is where Nauta adds a further critical comment, the document states that the new formulation means to render the Reformed principles in concentrated form. Nauta states in so many words that in actual fact the structure of the University will be altered. “The university,” thus this retired professor of Church polity at the Free University, “will in the future no longer be bound to a specific conception concerning scientific endeavor. The uttering of a certain religious choice (positiebepaling) is deemed sufficient.”

At the same time an attempt is made to use Kuyper in defense of the new approach. For Kuyper had said: “There is not a square inch on the whole domain of human life of which Christ does not say: ‘It is mine.’” What else is this, thus the argumentation for the new proposal, but to say what is now proposed. Kuyper said: “Christ is Lord.” The present generation wants to say that too.

Nauta takes sharp issue with this type of reasoning. Kuyper never meant his celebrated word to be taken as the foundation for a university. Had he felt the need for a “religious-choice” approach he would most certainly have made reference to the Reformed confessional writings.

Nauta believes that the new formulation has its merits. But he is of the opinion that it does not present the Reformed principles but the Reformed confession in concentrated form. However, he also observes that not all the elements of the Reformed confession are found in it. It is only certain elements of this confession which one can find in it. For this reason Nauta states he can easily accept it. But he does object to the way in which the new changes are presented as constituting in reality no change at all. He also objects to the fact that the Association’s name will continue to be as stated in the opening paragraph of this article. Either the name “Reformed” must be changed, or the proposed changes in the constitution must make clearer that one wishes to be Reformed.

Proposed change for “Three Forms of Unity” – An interesting point is also what Nauta has to say about the way in which the document for clarification refers to the confessions of the church. As was noted earlier, the theological faculty of the Free University was bound not just to “Reformed principles” but to the Three Forms of Unity. It now appears that the proposed changes will also affect this situation. After all, thus the background document, when the Three Forms of Unity are used as basis, this basis is laid “in a world-and-life view formulated by men.” The new formulation allegedly goes down to the deeper level of Christ’s gospel. On this level one may not give a further definition of theological study and teaching!

Nauta observes quite correctly that the new formulation with its reference to the gospel still remains a formulation made by men. And, secondly, a confession may not simply be equated with a “world-and-life view.” The confessions intend to come down to the same level as the new proposal wishes to do. II is the level of the Gospel of Jesus Christ himself.

What Nauta is mainly interested in is perfect clarity in the proposed changes. It should not he possible to appeal alternately to the name of the Association, where the reference to the “Reformed basis” will be retained, and to the constitution, where it will no longer occur.

Rev. Masselink seems to agree with the point that to speak of “Reformed principles” as the basis of education is no longer feasible. He also observes that the Free University was not meant to be a school limited to one denomination only. It would have been wonderful if all those who truly adhered to the Reformed faith had cooperated with it from the outset. In the last few years, happily, the Free University has become interdenominational in participation. But its Reformed character should be maintained. Is this possible with the new formulation?

Masselink states that regretfully mere reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even when followed by a reference to the “revelation in Holy Scripture” is no longer a stable starting point for scientific work. And then he cites how Professor Kuitert considers the Bible to be part of that which is “handed down” from generation to generation, while actually the Bible speaks in quite different terms about itself. He also mentions the attempts of Doctorandus Baarda to determine what the real Jesus was and what features have been added to him by the later New Testament church. Finally he speaks of Professor Augustijn’s position regarding the impossibility of having any confession at all today.

What the gospel actually is is not stated in so many words in the new formulation. It is supposed to be tacitly assumed. What Masselink would like to have added to the new formulation is a clear recognition that the gospel means the redemption of a sinful world through the atonement and the grace of Christ. This, so he maintains, should not be in the clarification, where at present it does not even occur, but in the constitution itself. That which the proposed constitution says about man’s service of God and fellowman is true, but it comes in second place. The dominating feature in any reference to the gospel ought to be the Lamb of God in Whom God makes atonement for the world.

From now on, Free University professors will be asked to express agreement with a generally Christian basis. One may be happy with this, but it is a rejoicing with trembling. Take Professor Lever as an example. Reading his works, thus Masselink, one can gather enough expressions and suggestions to come to a conclusion concerning the professor’s “generally Christian good will.” But doubts arise whether the foundations of biblical faith are still functioning. Thus far the summary of the two aforementioned articles.

An unavoidable question – The full official name of the Amsterdam university has always been: Free Reformed University. Probably this name will not be altered, no more than the reference to the “Reformed Basis” in the Association’s name. But both writers cited have indicated that important structural changes are in the offing. Kuyper’s ideal of doing scientific work on the basis of Reformed principles has not been attacked, it has been abandoned.

During a conversation with one of the professors of the Free University this past spring the question arose: What are you people at Calvin doing about giving a doctor’s degree? In the light of the proposed restructuring of the Free University of Amsterdam this question, which has long been urgent, would now seem to become unavoidable. Would we, in North America, with all our important resources, be called by God to be a new Free Reformed University?

Dr. Marten H. Woudstra is a professor of Old Testament theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.