Predestination and evangelical spirituality: Neo-Calvinism in South Africa

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This article reflects the relationship between Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and evangelical spirituality in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. This doctrine could not be reconciled with the evangelical spirituality that had been characteristic of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape since the second half of the 19th century (Brümmer 2016a). On the one hand the Cape theologians practised their evangelical spirituality while on the other hand they considered themselves to be orthodox Reformed theologians who subscribed to the doctrine of predestination. They were not bothered by the logical tension between their spirituality and their doctrine. In the 1930s, however, there was growing support in South Africa for the kind of Neo-Calvinism defended by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands. The Neo-Calvinists rejected the evangelical spirituality in the Dutch Reformed Church as being “Methodist” and not Reformed. Under the pseudonym “Bekommerd” the Rev. A.A. Weich wrote a series of letters in Die Kerkbode in which he defended the evangelical spirituality in the Church against the critique of the Neo-Calvinists. This gave rise to a lively debate in the correspondence columns of Die Kerbode (Brümmer 2016b). However, the Neo-Calvinists did not only oppose evangelical spirituality as contrary to Reformed doctrine. They also wanted to spread the Neo-Calvinist ideology of Abraham Kuyper to all areas of South African society. Kuyper had developed Calvinism into an ideology that required active application to all areas of life and society. This article focuses on the following: 1. It explains Kuyper’s Neo-Calvinist ideology and determines what was “neo” about Neo-Calvinism; 2. It investigates the evangelical objections to Kuyper’s ideology. 3. It shows how these differences between Neo-Calvinists and evangelicals caused them to differ in their views about the ecumenical movement and inter-confessional organisations like the Student Christian Association (SCA). They also differed in their views on South African politics, and especially regarding the relationship between the Afrikaners and the English and race relations between whites and blacks.

The most important innovation in Kuyper’s interpretation of Calvinism is his distinction between general and special grace. The latter is the saving grace of divine election. This grace applies only to the elect and not to all human beings. General grace applies to all human beings, but does not lead to salvation. It is preserving rather than saving. It preserves all human beings from the worst effects of sin and enables all humans to maintain an orderly society, to develop culture and to spread civilisation in the world. General grace enables all humans, and not only the elect, to maintain high standards of morality and to achieve much in all areas of culture and civilisation. In these respects there is not much difference between the elect and the non-elect. This enables all humans to co-operate in building up society and developing culture and civilisation. However, there is a great difference in the contribution made by the elect and the non-elect in this co-operation. The difference results from the regeneration of the elect by which the principles of Biblical revelation are engraved in their consciousness. These principles are the basis for Calvinism as the purist Christian alternative to non-Christian ideologies such as humanism, liberalism, socialism and so forth.

Since Calvinism is in principle free from domination by the state or the church as institution, it can develop into various denominational forms differing in their degree of purity. The purist form of Calvinism is that expressed in the Reformed confessions based on the principle of the absolute sovereignty of God. This is also the purist expression of the Christian faith. Pure Reformed Calvinism has therefore continually struggled to maintain its purity against the rise of various confessional deviations. Only by maintaining its purity can it be an effective alternative for non-Christian ideologies in society.

The Neo-Calvinists in South Africa aimed at applying Kuyper’s programme in South Africa. The evangelicals had two main objections to this Neo-Calvinist programme. First of all they accused the Neo-Calvinists of intellectualising the faith. Faith becomes something of the mind rather than of the heart. Regeneration changes our consciousness rather than our lives. Christianity becomes a commitment to a system of principles rather that a commitment to the person of Christ.

Secondly, the evangelicals objected to the exclusivism of the Neo-Calvinists. In their struggle to maintain their confessional purity they refused to co-operate with those who did not share their Reformed confessional basis. For this reason they objected to inter-confessional societies like the SCA and aimed at setting up their own Confessional Christian Students Society which would unite all those students who shared a commitment to the Reformed confessions, and exclude the evangelicals whom they accused of adhering to Arminian confessional principles.

It is clear that two radically different principles of inclusion were involved here. The Neo-Calvinists wanted to include all those students who shared their Calvinistic confessional commitment, whereas the evangelicals wanted to include all those students who “loved the Lord”, irrespective of their confessional commitments. The question was what is more important: bringing people of faith together in spite of their confessional differences, or maintaining confessional purity by keeping them apart? In South Africa this difference in approach was not only applied to the relationship between churches and confessional traditions, but also had a decisive effect on the attitude of evangelicals and Neo-Calvinists to South African politics.

After the Anglo-Boer War, the political divide in South Africa was between the South African Party of Botha and Smuts, who aimed at reconciling the Afrikaners and the English and fusing them into one united South African nation, and the Afrikaner Nationalists, who refused to endanger their separate Afrikaner identity and aimed at maintaining the Afrikaners as a separate nation in South Africa. They argued that Afrikaners and English could live peacefully side by side, but could never become one nation. In general the sympathy of the evangelicals was with the “conciliation” policy of Botha and Smuts, whereas the Neo-Calvinists provided an ideological basis for Afrikaner nationalism. According to them, Calvinists in South Africa were republicans in principle and therefore not at home within the British Empire.

In a similar way the Neo-Calvinists tried to provide an ideological basis for a policy of racial segregation (later called apartheid). However, the Neo-Calvinists did not “invent” apartheid. It was a manifestation of what Edward Said called orientalism: the intuitive tendency of Westerners (not only in South Africa) to maintain their superiority over the “East” by keeping themselves apart. They looked on the East from a Western perspective and intuitively considered their own perspective to be the only “true” one. The Neo-Calvinists tried to provide an ideological basis for this perspective. The evangelicals, who intuitively shared this perspective, were more pragmatic in their approach to race relations. They rejected a Neo-Calvinist political blueprint which purported to have authority. They admitted that the problem of race relations in South Africa was very complicated and to be solved only in a piecemeal and experimental way. And finally they tried to overcome their intuitive orientalism by attempting to understand and consider the perspective of their black countrymen. It makes one wonder what course the history of South Africa would have taken if Afrikaners had chosen the path of the evangelicals rather than that of the Neo-Calvinists.

Keywords: Abraham Kuyper; Afrikaner nationalism; “Concerned” (“Bekommerd”) debate; reconciliation policy; divine love; divine sovereignty; J.D. du Toit (Totius); J.D. Vorster; Methodism; neo-Calvinism; P.J.S. de Klerk; predestination; racial segregation; spirituality

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Uitverkiesing en evangelikaalse spiritualiteit: die neocalvinisme in Suid-Afrika

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