In the 1930s there was a strong rise of the neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper in South Africa. The neo-Calvinists started to organise themselves into a movement aimed at spreading the neo-Calvinist ideology in South Africa. This movement was especially strong in the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church) and the Potchefstroom University College, but there was also growing support for neo-Calvinism within the Dutch Reformed Church (NG Kerk). From their Kuyperian perspective the neo-Calvinists in South Africa opposed the evangelical spirituality in the Dutch Reformed Church, which according them was “Methodist” and therefore contrary to Calvinism. In 1935 the Rev. A.A. Weich, under the pseudonym “Bekommerd” (Concerned), wrote a series of letters in Die Kerkbode in which he defended the evangelical spirituality of the Dutch Reformed Church against the rising neo-Calvinism in South Africa. These letters evoked a flood of reactions from supporters and opponents of “Bekommerd” in the correspondence column of Die Kerkbode.
This debate brought to light an underlying conflict between opposing forms of theology within the Dutch Reformed Church. Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and the neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper were based on the key metaphor of the absolute sovereignty of God, whereas the evangelical spirituality of the Dutch Reformed Church was based on the key metaphor of the love of God in Christ. To complicate matters, there was also a third type of theology in the background within the debate, namely a theology of merit. In different ways both a theology of divine sovereignty and a theology of divine love were opposed to a theology of merit.
A theology of merit assumes that humans can earn salvation through good works. If we do the will of God, God will reward us with heaven. If, however, we fail to act according to his will, he will punish us with hell. God’s grace is therefore not unconditional. It is dependent on our good works.
A theology of divine sovereignty rejects the idea that we can earn our salvation with good works. Because of the fall of Adam, all human beings have lost the ability to do the will of God, and are therefore doomed to eternal punishment. We can be saved from this fate only by the sovereign grace of God. However, this saving grace applies only to those whom God has from all eternity elected for salvation, whereas all others are left in the eternal doom resulting from Adam’s fall. Both the salvation of some and the doom of others are based exclusively on the eternal and inscrutable decree of God. Our free actions are therefore irrelevant for our salvation. At the synod of Dordt the followers of Jacob Arminius opposed the idea that our actions are irrelevant for our salvation. They agreed with the Reformed fathers at Dordt that God had decreed before all time who are to be saved and who not. However, this decree was based on his infallible foreknowledge of the deeds of all future human beings. The Reformed fathers of Dordt were right in considering this to be a covert form of the theology of merit.
A theology of divine love assumes that through sin all human beings are estranged from God and that their salvation consists in being reconciled with God and restored into a relationship of loving fellowship with God. The two necessary conditions for such reconciliation are divine forgiveness and human repentance and conversion. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and applies to all sinners. God loves all human beings. Repentance and conversion are a human responsibility. God can enable and inspire us to repent, but he cannot cause our repentance, for then it would not be ours. We can be reconciled to God only if we freely return his love. However, since we can do so only when he enables and inspires us, believers give all credit for their own conversion to God alone. Soli Deo gloria.
In the “Bekommerd” debate it is clear that the evangelicals defended a theology of the love of God and the Calvinists a theology of divine sovereignty. This difference had far-reaching implications for both spirituality and preaching. The evangelicals practised a spirituality of conversion and sanctification. The aim of their preaching was to call all human beings to conversion and a life of sanctification in response to the love of God. For the Calvinists, however, conversion and sanctification are not our responsibility but the necessary effect of divine election. Preaching was therefore aimed at making the elect aware of their status as the elect. The Calvinists rejected both the spirituality and the preaching of the evangelicals as contrary to Reformed doctrine. However, in doing so they confused a theology of love with a theology of merit, and therefore mistakenly accused the evangelicals of being Arminians.
The neo-Calvinists not only opposed the spirituality and preaching of the evangelicals. They also wanted to actively spread the neo-Calvinist ideology of Abraham Kuyper to all areas of South African society.
Keywords: “Concerned” (“Bekommerd”) debate; divine love; divine sovereignty; J.D. du Toit (Totius); J.D. Vorster; Methodism; neo-Calvinism; P.J.S. de Klerk; predestination; spirituality