Willie Jonker and the Rustenburg confession – a shift to the left?

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Thirty years ago, on 7 November 1991 at a conference of South African churches held at Hunters Rest in Rustenburg, the well-known Stellenbosch theologian, prof. W.D. Jonker, made a statement that reverberated around the world:

I confess before you and before the Lord, not only my own sin and guilt, and my personal responsibility for the political, social, economic and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you, and the results of which you and our whole country are still suffering from, but vicariously I dare also to do that in the name of the DRC of which I am a member, and for the Afrikaner people as a whole. I have the liberty to do just that, because the DRC at its latest synod has declared apartheid a sin and confessed its own guilt of negligence in not warning against it and distancing itself from it long ago.

It is worth noting that he unambiguously confessed that apartheid was a sin – and that he did so not only on his own behalf, but also on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) as well as the Afrikaner nation.

At the time it was, to say the least, a controversial statement to make. His actions were commended in some circles in South Africa, especially by the English press, but also by the overseas press. They hailed it as a watershed moment in the history of South Africa as a whole, but especially of the so-called “leper church” – the Dutch Reformed Church. Henceforth the DRC would no longer be an outcast in the ecumenical world, but would gradually be welcomed back into the fold.

Although a substantial number of clergy and members of the DRC supported Jonker, a significant number of the rank and file and, notably, some of the leading clergy of the DRC, condemned the confession. They accused Jonker of having changed his theological stance, of being a liberalist and of being motivated by a theological shift to the left. They were convinced that he had embraced the theology of the revolution and/or the liberation theology.

This article investigates whether these accusations can be substantiated. Did Jonker indeed shift from the reformed theological point of view which he had initially endorsed to a theology not only foreign to his very own schooling, but also to the doctrine of the DRC? Or was his confession the ripened fruit of the theology with which he had served the DRC as lecturer and minister of religion? Like any true academic, Jonker had indeed developed, but the question is: Did he digress from the beaten track? Or can a trajectory in his works be identified that clearly indicates that Jonker’s ecclesiology had influenced him so deeply that he confessed, driven by his own conviction, without changing the fundamentals of his theology at all?

Considering these questions, this article traces the development and trajectory of Jonker’s theology. He grew up as a so-called “poor white” (Afrikaans: armblanke) in a typically “nationalistic” (that is, supporters of the National Party and apartheid) and deeply religious household. Jonker attended the University of Pretoria – significantly called the “Voortrekker-universiteit” in those days – for his BA, MA and BD degrees, all of which he obtained with distinction. His studies brought him in close contact with two minsters known for their anti-apartheid stance, the reverends Ben Marais and Beyers Naudé. Although they influenced him, he did not consciously change his views to the point that he would, in later years, make the confession at Rustenburg.

There can be no doubt that his promotor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, prof. G.C. Berkouwer, influenced him in a significant way, but the final shift cannot be ascribed to Berkouwer’s influence. Jonker also attended a semester of lectures by Karl Barth in Basel. Barth opened Jonker’s eyes to the dangers of Christian philosophy. Barth’s standpoint was that Christian philosophy inevitably lead to bad theology, to natural theology, a theology that is not solely based on Scripture. It was the influence of Barth that led Jonker to oppose all types of theology that did not exclusively emanate from Scripture throughout his ministry until the end of his life.

This article shows that the final shift happened with the writing of his thesis, Mistieke liggaam en kerk in die Rooms-Katolieke teologie, on the true nature and being of the Church. The Church is the true “mystical” body of Christ Himself. Jonker concluded that all who receive the grace of God in and through Jesus Christ are incorporated into His body – irrespective of prerequisites for membership laid down by human beings (e.g. race in the South African context). The crux of the matter is that Jonker’s shift therefore was not to a position on the “left”, but to a truly reformed and biblical ecclesiology.

Through writing his thesis, Jonker gained clear insight into a well-grounded biblical-theological ecclesiology. In this article the trajectory of Jonker’s theology since the writing of his thesis is traced chronologically. It will indicate that Jonker’s doctoral studies equipped him to convey unequivocally to the DRC the message of the Gospel concerning her policy of separate churches for separate ethnic groups.

For Jonker, it was not solely an abstract theological or intellectual matter. The existence of separate churches in the family of Dutch Reformed churches – “churches” with the same confessions and polity – touched him on a personal level. Moreover, their economic, social, structural, political and especially emotional suffering made such a deep impression on him that he simply could not turn a blind eye or keep quiet about it.

His theology was not practised in an ivory tower but had a deep impact on himself and his career. He simply had to confess that separate churches for separate ethnic groups – ecclesiastical apartheid – is a sin.

Keywords: apartheid; Barth; confession; natural theology; Rustenburg; Vrije Universiteit


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Willie Jonker en die Rustenburg-skuldbelydenis – ’n skuif na links?

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