Whitner, The Free University: The Fall of a Philosopher King

The Bible credits Solomon with being a very wise man. Yet his wisdom, wealth, power and prestige brought temptations which overcame him. An Oriental king must have a harem and the greater the king, the greater should be the harem. With the adulation that came to him from every quarter as his reputation grew, especially these friendly (not to say, intimate) alliances with people of many cultures placed him under increasing pressure to show his wisdom by exercising the virtue of “understanding” or “tolerance,” to rise above the petty discriminations of nationality, color and creed and show the magnanimity of his mind by indulging the opinions and desires of his friends. S0 it came about that beside the temple of Israel’s God, the God of the whole earth, there arose other temples dedicated to idols. That is the way the Bible traces the folly and fall of the wise philosopher king.

A kind of modern counterpart to that story (without its romantic overtones) can be repeatedly observed in the rise and fall of Christian academic institutions. One may not become fatalistic and say that their course must be one of development until they compromise and finally destroy the faith they were established to teach. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the fact that their course has almost invariably been so.

In many ways the Free University at Amsterdam has had a unique place among us. As the product, under God’s blessing, of the early vision of Abraham Kuyper and his friends and their heroic struggle against seemingly hopeless odds. this institution has long inspired our respect, gratitude and imitation. Through its training of many of our ministers and teachers and through the writings of its faculty, it has influenced our churches to an incalculable degree. Because our ties with it have been so many we must observe the more regretfully a number of recent indications that it is following the cycle of many other institutions and wise men since Solomon.

“From Kuyper to King”

In an article under the above title Mr. Bernard Zylstra, writing in the Christian Courier for November 12, 1965, described a number of features of the 85th anniversary celebration of the Free University. At a special commemorative service sponsored by the Hervormde and Gereformecrde Kerken the preacher was Dr. J. J. Buskes, known especially as an adherent of Geelkerken (who in 1926 was excluded by the Gereformeerde Kerken because of his attack on the historicity of the account of the Fall) and as an active supporter of the Socialist party in 1945. The preacher said that the University, founded for the Reformed people, must now assume its responsibilities for the whole nation. It must abandon all forms of reactionary conservatism which often obstruct Christian witness. It must follow· the lead of men like Berkouwer and Lever (well-known proponent of “theistic” evolution). “We must not,” Buskes said, “distrust the new ideas, that are being suggested, but we should move ahead into new directions trusting in the great power of the Word of God.”



A feature of the celebration that caught special attention and gave the article its title was the awarding of honorary degrees to six men, including Martin Luther King. This action was the more significant in view of the fact that only thirteen such degrees had ever been awarded and those were usually for unusual services to the Calvinist community or for international recognition as Calvinist scholars. In the ceremony of granting the degree to King, Professor G. Kuiper, professor of sociology, observed that the University “pretends to be led by the gospel of Jesus Christ in its scientific activity and policy…” (a curious slip over a tricky English word !) and said, “we want to let you know by means of this honorary degree how we also recognize the way of Christ in these methods,” that is, the “unviolent” methods of King’s crusade. Most of uS arc undoubtedly glad to see some of the long-standing wrongs of the colored people righted. But for a renowned Calvinistic institution to hail King’s tactics, civil disobedience and all, as “the way of Christ” is a very questionable business. Mr. Zylstra, whose specialties are theology and law, attempted to defend the University’s action on the basis the “we must obey God rather ‘than men,” and that “the history especially of Calvinism shows that a measure of civil disobedience was called for whenever Caesar became a tyrant.” We ought to observe that the principle of: “We must obey God rather than men” has nothing whatever to do with that of: “It is right to break laws if we think that they are unfair and can get publicity for a good cause by doing so!” Regardless of what one thinks of King, the awarding of such a degree by the Free University indicates, as Mr. Zylstra pointed out, a decided change of course by the University. Whether that change is still “in Kuyper’s line,” as he maintained, is highly debatable.

Professor Dooyeweerd’s farewell Address

The awarding of a degree to King might not, if it were an isolated incident, be very significant. However it does not stand alone. About the same time, so the Vrije Universiteitsblad for October 1965 informed us, there were celebrations of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Professor Berkouwer and the retirement of Professor Dooyeweerd. The latter in his farewell address made it a point that he wanted to call his philosophy “not Reformed or Calvinistic but ecumenically Christian” (italics are mine). Anyone who is acquainted with his writings will recognize in this a reflection of what he has explained in greater detail elsewhere. Whereas he had earlier in his career spoken of Calvinistic Philosophy, he later repudiated that term in favor of the broader one—“Christian philosophy without any further qualification.” (A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. I, p. 524, “Why I reject the term ‘Calvinistic Philosophy.’”) One can understand his argument that any truly Christian philosophy must base itself on the assumptions on which he has attempted to construct his system, and can appreciate the ostensible advantage in the interest of popular appeal of using the term “Christian” rather than the more parochial sounding “Reformed” or “Calvinistic.” Whatever his arguments and motives, it appears that Dooyeweerd, along with the University in which he has had such an influential place, has been moving away from a specifically Reformed to a broader position. The generally critical attitude he and his followers adopt toward Reformed theology (on the basis of his system which would confine all theology to a rather limited “sphere” of its own) has undoubtedly played a significant part in this drift from a Reformed toward a broader position and attitude.

Change in the University’s Basis

Even more significant in revealing the shifting course of the Free University was an article in the same Vrije Universiteitsblad under the title, “Bezinning over (formulering van ) grondslag V.U.”It informed us of the studies currently being made of a possible change of formulation of the basis for the University, and cited especially the farewell address on this subject by Professor H. Schippers, retiring rector of the institution. Professor Schippers stated, “We live in a different world than the people of 1880 who founded the University and we know it. We also live in a different world of thought and in that change our University has been an active participant. The Free University and that of Nijmegen (Roman Catholic), Professor Rogier said a good year ago, have become one way which led out of the fortress into the open, not contributors to strengthening of isolation, but points of departure toward a blessed process of national reintegration. As far as our University is concerned, it belongs more and more to the bridges toward a Christian consensus with others for whom the basis of the University, as it was formulated and interpreted in 1880, is hardly acceptable, but who wish with us to set themselves to the work of science carried out in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And then the question unavoidably arises whether in the formulation of the basis, as we find it in our Statutes—the Reformed principles – ‘It has happened’ has not played a more important role than ‘It is written.’” He affirmed that it was this matter which was currently under study. a process that might demand considerable time.

He went on to say that this year another question had arisen as to the functioning of the basis in connection with appointments to the faculty. “We have a scientific responsibility. In appointments the best qualified men must be sought. Yet we do not want to drift away from what we have always wanted to be, a Christian university. But what if a case arises in which when a man is needed for a given function, no one from our spiritual circles can be found? Must we then proceed to appoint someone who is not of our spiritual family?

“Furthermore, we are an open university, in this sense, that anyone may be enrolled as a student, of whatever faith he may be. What about the rights of those students who cannot accept our basis to be free from discrimination for this reason when in the field of their training openings appear on the scientific staff?

“Moreover, although we want to be a community of men who also in their scientific work continually acknowledge themselves to be bound by God’s word, could it not be important and even very profitable if on the scientific staff there were men who do not see the functioning of the basis or even deny its possibility, but who can pose the most pertinent questions regarding this matter in discussion with those who proceed from the basis?

“Those who have the responsibility for our university as a Christian university see all these questions very clearly. It is not as though they have no answer to them. One might formulate their answer as follows: If because of good reason and real scientific need persons must be appointed who do not agree with the basis, that can be done. But it will be expected and demanded of them that they in their bearing in and outside of the school show respect for, loyalty towards and in general a sense of responsibility to our university, seen in the light of its aim and task.

“If our basis is really such that we can build upon it in faith, the realization that this building is meaningful will be transferable to those who do not yet or who no longer understand what building on it means; and in any event many, as they come to face the most critical questions and see what is possible in faith in building on this foundation, will feel themselves safer than in any other building. ‘For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor. 3:11).”

Does all this not reveal that the University is changing course and what direction that change is taking? Notice the decided shift, first from a “Reformed” institution towards one more broadly “Christian” in which errors such as those of Roman Catholicism no longer seem to matter. And the trend does not stop there. Does it ever? It goes on toward accommodating decent unbelievers in case it seems academically expedient to do so, to reckon even with their “rights” to teaching positions without being faced with “discrimination” on the basis of faith, and all this in the (naive?) hope that teaching in this institution will somehow convert them or cancel the effects of their unbelief! Considering that much of the leadership of the Gereformeerde Kerken is trained in this institution, do we not begin to understand somewhat more readily the indications of change in those churches? And does not all this change conspicuously resemble that with which we are so familiar in the history of most of the older colleges and universities in the United States and the churches which depended on them for the training of their leadership, a change resembling in spirit that of King Solomon?

In our concern for this institution as well as for our own we do well to recall the words Kuyper wrote in 1896 (cited by Rev. H. Van Andel in the Jan. 14, 1966 Calvinist-Contact): “That University will flourish, not if. with the abandonment of its principle it doubles the number of its professors and students, but if it manifests the inner strength, be it under the most painful circumstances, even with the loss of professors and students and money, to preserve its principle inviolate.”