Voices from South Africa

It is highly regrettable that the theological contact between the Reformed Churches of South-Africa and the other member-churches of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod is only fragmentary and scarce. The first word which rises before the mind of many in connection with South-Africa is the word “apartheid,” and often it is also the last word, a fact which is as much understandable as it is deplorable.

We should be aware of the fact that in that country some very able Reformed theologians are living and working. I mention only the names of the professors Verhoef, Kroeze, Potgieter, Groenewald and Stoker. Recently I was struck by the appearance of an article and a book, which are so relevant to discussions in our circles in this time, that I would like to announce them here.

1. Potgieter’s article.

In the September issue of the Ned. Geref. Teologiese Tydskrif (1968) Prof. Dr. F. J. M. Potgieter published an article on The Doctrine of Reprobation (Die Leer van die Verwerping). This article was written in the context of the remembrance of the Synod of Dordt, and all the articles in this issue were related to that Synod. It was also occasioned by the bct that the doctrine of reprobation has been under attack in recent Reformed theology. Prof. Potgieter quotes an article of Prof. Berkouwer entitled “Questions about the Confession” (Vragen random de Belijdenis) in which the formulation of the Canons of Dordt is criticized. According to Berkouwer, although these Canons evidently deny that God is the Author of sin, it is rather hard to see that the fact that some do not receive the faith should not be identified with God-being-the-cause-of.sin. He is afraid of an “election and reprobation a priori,” a kind of determinism, and speaks of a shift in the exegesis of Rom. 9-11. His sources are Prof. Herman Ridderbos and H. de Lubac, one of the spokesmen of the new theology in the Roman Catholic church. Prof. A. D. R. Polman has written in the same vein. In the Symposium Ex Audilu Verbi he referred to “the authoritative (magistraal) exposition of Karl Barth regarding predestination” and he raised objections against “an absolute decree abstracted from Jesus Christ.”

Prof. Potgieter writes that “he is amazed by the impression which Barth has made on Reformed theologians with his totally unfounded contention that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and therefore also the Canons of Dordt, contain an absolute, merciless decree, abstracted from Christ; nothing can be more removed from the truth.” He points to the fact that it was Barth who wrote in the second volume of his Dogmatics that he would have preferred to stay close to Calvin, but that he had moved far from him because of his doctrine of an absolute decree, a doctrine which was also defended in Dordt.

It is the merit of Potgieter’s article that he quotes Calvin extensively; he shows that both in the Institutes and in his Commentary to the Epistle to the Romans, Calvin taught that “God’s secret plan is the cause of hardening” (lnst. Ill, 23, 1). But Calvin taught in the same breath that the cause of perdition is to be found in man himself: “Their perdition depends upon the predestination of God in such a way that the cause and occasion of it are found in themselves” (Inst. III, 23, 8). The Canons of Dordt express themselves in the same vein (1,5,6), and it is most clear that both Calvin and Dordt are speaking of a very special causality: there is an essential difference between the first cause (causa remota) in God, and the second cause (causa propinqua) in man. Our human logic does not apply here, and if anyone would object that Calvinism is moving here in the sphere of human a priori’s the answer of Prof. Potgieter is that this is not true: these so called a priori’s are taken from Scripture.

Potgieter admits that there is an “asymmetry” of election and reprobation. But he adds that this does not alter the fact that the Counsel of God is one, a totality of all the thoughts of God. Neither Calvin nor the Canons have taught that this Counsel is “an absolute decree abstracted from Jesus Christ.” On the contrary, both agree in the doctrine that God “appointed from eternity Christ to be the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation” (Canons I, 7).

The article of Prof. Potgieter was written in 1968; its relevance in 1970 is most clear, considering the fact that the Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands pronounced on March 6, 1970 that “some passages in the Canons of Dordt concerning the doctrine of eternal reprobation are not based on plain passages of Holy Scripture.”

II . Buytendach’s thesis.

In January 1969 Dr. F. W. Buytendach took his theological doctor’s degree at the University of Potchefstroom with a thesis on the following subject:

“Aspects of the form-contents-problematics in connection with the organic inspiration of Scripture in the new reformed theology in the Netherlands” (Aspekte van die vorm/inhoud-problematiek met betrekking tot die organiese Skriftinspirasie in die nuwere gereformeerde teologie in Nederland). An excellent survey of this book (2 vls. 560 pp.) is to be found in the Dutch weekly De Reformatie, written by Prof. Dr. C. Trimp, and from that article I take the following information.

The main part of Dr. Buytendach’s thesis consists in a critical review of the new ideas on Scripture and its authority of Dr. N. H. Ridderbos, Rev. T. Delleman, Drs. H. A. L. van der Linden, Dr. J. L. Koole, Dr. H. M. Kuitert, Dr. H. N. Ridderbos, Dr. G. C. Berkouwer and Dr. G. P. Hartvelt. At the background of these new ideas he find two main influences: those of the theology of Barth and Bultmann, and of the evolutionary conceptions of the first chapters of Genesis set forth by Dr. J. Lever.

The big problem, according to Dr. Buytendach, is that of form-contents: has the Bible authority in all its parts as the inspired Word of God? or has the Bible authority as far as its message of salvation is concerned? In other words: is the believer who accepts all Biblical data in their inerrancy a formalist, or is he obedient to the prime Author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit?

Dr. Trimp formulates this question in the following way: “Is it possible for us to isolate the message (kerugma) of Scripture from Scripture-as-a-book, and to contrast that message with the book; or should we, in order to understand the message, accept all that is written without any reservation, because in all that is written (by men) God is permanently addressing us?”

The answer of Dr. Buytendach to this problem is very clear: in his view “message” and “book” cannot be separated. Anyone who proposes that the book is only a human witness to the divine salvation opens the way to criticism of Scripture and undermines the certainty of faith.

As far as the ideas of Dr. Lever are concerned, Dr. Buytendach qualifies them as “scientific fundamentalism,” because he reduces the Biblical message of Genesis 1 to its kerugrnatic intention. He points to the dangerous consequences of his theories, occasioning the denial of the historicity of Adam and Eve, and bringing about an undermining of the essential foundations of our faith. Dr. Kuitert has been influenced very deeply by these ideas. Dr. Buytendach offers an extensive analysis of his opinions in more than a hundred pages, showing his conflicts with Scripture, Confession and the Form of subscription. He calls him the “leading inaugurator of the form-contents-problematics in the new reformed theology in the Netherlands” and concludes that his theology says farewell to the Bible as the God-given, Spirit-inspired Scripture.

The author also discusses the ideas of Dr. Herman Ridderbos and of Dr. G. C. Berkouwer concerning Scripture. He finds in the views of Ridderbos a gradual equalization of the idea of the “organic” with that of the “human” and therefore “relative.” Berkouwer (according to Dr. Buytendach) changed very much since 1938. He was fascinated too much by Roman Catholic Bible studies and was too less critical of the position of form-criticism. The book ends with a chapter on the past and the future.

Dr. Buytendach has rendered a very valuable service to the international Reformed community, by presenting a very detailed inventory of present opinions on Scripture in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands as well as his staunch defense of the classic Reformed position.

In the crisis of Reformed theology of our time the voices of South-Africa should certainly get a well-deserved hearing.

Dr. Louis Praasma is pastor of the Fruitland Christian Reformed Church, Fruitland, Ontario.