Racism, nationalism and the Reformed tradition: a narrative approach

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Flip Buys, the president of the World Reformed Fellowship, has stated that “the basic doctrines of the sovereignty of God as it has been understood and taught in the Calvinistic tradition” leave no room for “thoughts and practices of racial and tribal discrimination” (Buys 2009:1). This sentiment enjoys widespread support among both liberal and conservative Calvinist scholars internationally. Expressed within a South African context, this narrative appeal towards the historical understanding and teaching of Calvinism immediately raises questions, especially in light of the well-known fact that during the 20th century prominent Calvinist scholars in South Africa, such as J.D. du Toit and H.G. Stoker, did not share this understanding.

The purpose of this article is not to advocate for any particular theological position, but to critically examine the prevailing narrative appeal towards the Reformed theological tradition to sanction an anti-racist and anti-nationalist position. The prevailing narrative argument that Calvinism would not tolerate any form of nationalism if liberated from external political influences such as those in 20th-century South Africa is tested in light of the sources. The merits of this narrative appeal is investigated using the phenomenological-narrative approach of the contemporary American philosopher of history, David Carr. Carr, like leading postmodernist philosophers of history such as Hayden White, strongly emphasises the narrative character of historiography. However, he also criticises such approaches for their acceptance of an unbridgeable gap between historical reality on the one hand and historical representation on the other. For Carr, all human experience is, by definition, narratively shaped. Narrative provides the coherent framework – spanning past, present and future – necessary to provide meaning to human activity (Carr 2013:2, 7, 67–8). Carr’s approach is valuable for a critical analysis of narrative positions, precisely because, unlike postmodern approaches, it ties these narratives to historical reality and primary sources.

Primary sources reveal the historical understanding of concepts such as race, nation, racism, xenophobia and nationalism among leading Reformed theologians and philosophers from the 16th century onwards. During the last few decades of the 20th century, a condemnation of all forms of racism and nationalism became increasingly characteristic of Reformed theology. However, this development stands in contrast to the opposing positions common among South African, Dutch and American Calvinists from the early 20th century up until as late as the 1970s. The primary sources reveal the weaknesses of a narrative appeal to the Reformed tradition from the 16th century onwards as justification for this later repositioning.

During the 16th century, first-generation reformers such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli expressed sentiments towards Turkish and Jewish people that could certainly be characterised as xenophobic. In his famous anti-Semitic work, On the Jews and their lies, Luther even boasted of being a descendant of the patriarch Japheth, the “true heir” of the gospel (Luther 1543:2). Zwingli, in turn, expressed disdain for the culture of coloured peoples such as Turks (Zwingli 1525:263). Furthermore, Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zürich and the most prominent covenant theologian of the Reformation, applied the Old Testament covenant relationship between God and Israel to his own Swiss nation (Bullinger 1528:7, 52).

During the early modern era the Dutch anti-Cartesian theologian Hermann Witsius explicitly referred to the Dutch nation as “God’s people ... chosen from the nations to be his particular portion” (Witsius 1692:387–8). Across the Atlantic, Jonathan Edwards, himself a defender of the right to own black slaves (Edwards 1741:73-6), lived in a puritan New England where anti-miscegenation laws were common.

In the America of the 19th century, as Reformed thinkers were first coming to terms with social realities that were truly multicultural in the modern sense of the word, both R.L. Dabney in the South and Charles Hodge, the rector of Princeton Theological Seminary in the North, explicitly endorsed an understanding of races being inherently different and unequal with regard to divinely endowed abilities and appetites (Dabney 1867:352–3). They also used these sentiments as justification for racial separatism.

In the Netherlands, the Calvinist anti-revolutionary movement was characterised by nationalist sentiments. Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer viewed racial integration in a negative light (Groen van Prinsterer 1867:1). Abraham Kuyper concluded his famous Lectures on Calvinism by connecting what he understood to be inherent racial differences and inequalities to God’s providence and predestination (Kuyper 1898:195–7).

Early in the 20th century, prominent conservative American Calvinists such as John Gresham Machen and the Dutch-born Geerhardus Vos likewise expressed pro-nationalist views. Machen denounced fraternity between races as a liberal heresy (Machen 1923:133), and distinguished between “liberty-loving” and slavish races (1933:1). Vos understood nations and races to be valuable covenantal structures in themselves (Vos 1896:118), and argued in favour of racial and ethnic nationalism, claiming that “under the providence of God each race or nation has a positive purpose to serve, fulfillment of which depends on relative seclusion from others” (1948:72).

Augustine, the church father who historically enjoyed the greatest appeal among Calvinist scholars with his interpretation of Galatians 3:28–29, also set a precedent for ethnocentric theology within the Reformed tradition: Commenting on the passage, he said that despite the unity of the faith, “racial differences” (differentia gentis) are to be respected and appreciated in all human interactions by Christians (Augustine 394:2125).

The primary sources bear witness to the fact that, despite historical and contextual differences, in the Reformed tradition there was an abiding undercurrent of racial thinking involving the sentiment that people of European descent formed a separate race, even as descendants of Japheth. This theme was widely present, as was ethnocentric covenantal thinking concerning the special divine election of one’s own nation. The thinking of 20th-century South African theologians such as Du Toit and Stoker could not, therefore, as the current prevailing theological narrative proposes, be viewed as unique departures from the Reformed tradition, but rather as in harmony with it. A prominent contemporary Reformed theologian, Timothy Keller, who expresses affinity for the Frankfurt School as influential upon his social theology (Keller 2009:xi–xii) represents a first step towards a necessary narrative repositioning within Reformed circles with regard to the development relating to their rejection of racism and nationalism.

Keywords: Calvinism, David Carr, narrative, nationalism, racism, Reformed

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Rassisme, nasionalisme en die Gereformeerde tradisie: ’n narratiewe benadering

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