The RCN’s changing views on antithesis, church and culture


A review of the book Vrijgemaakte Vreemdelingen[i]

After the Liberation of 1944 the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (RCN) established their own church-related organisations—reformed schools, a reformed political party, social organisations and even their own newspaper. That position was defended into the late 1960s but then underwent a steady change in views on church, covenant, antithesis, as is reflected in opening up organisations to others or amalgamating with them. For example, its newspaper Nederlands Dagblad now has non-RCN editors, its political party GPV amalgamated with other parties, its schools have opened their doors to outside students and there are moves to open up the teaching positions to outsiders. The RCN has deliberated distanced itself from the principled position it took during the first decades after the Liberation. This is reflected in a 2007 Dutch publication Vrijgemaakte Vreemdelingen (Liberated Strangers) in which thirteen writers, each contributing one chapter, provide a critical perspective of the earlier RCN (1944-1960) position on church, antithesis and culture.

The RCN’s views on these matters from 1944 to 1960 reflect a strong sense of the importance of the antithesis between church and world. It is not surprising, then, that Vrijgemaakte Vreemdelingen repeatedly refers to it. The antithesis was seen by the early RCN as the mother promise of Genesis 3:15, where God tells the serpent that He sets enmity between the Serpent’s seed and the woman’s seed; between Christ and His spiritual descendants (the church) on the one hand and, on the other hand, Satan and all who reject and oppose Christ and His church (the unbelieving world). This mother promise prophesies the victory of Christ over Satan. It is this view of the antithesis and what is perceived to be the past RCN’s ‘narrow’ view of the church of which the writers in this book appear to be particularly critical.

In the first chapter, G vanHarten shows that there were various attempts already during those early years to remove the antithesis between church and world. For example, the Dutch labour party (Partij van de Arbeid) immediately after WW2 used the slogan “breakthrough” in an attempt to promote a better society by uniting the many different national organisations. It saw the antithesis, whereby Christian organisations remain separate, as an obstacle to this goal, and wanted to do away with separate Christian organisations, arguing that in the post-war era there was no justification for them.

These attacks on the reformed view of the antithesis found support in the influential Swiss theologian Karl Barth who claimed the antithesis was not between believers and unbelievers but between God and man. He was also of the opinion that the antithesis was actually within each person, running through everyone’s heart. Barth claimed that there was therefore no antithesis between Christians and non-Christians and consequently there was no need for separate Christian organisations. Even amongst conservative Christians, however, there was an undermining of the antithesis through the claim that separate Christian organisations actually bring Christians into isolation so that they have little contact with unbelievers and are therefore less likely to be a salting influence.

These attempts to remove the antithesis between church and world were rebuffed by leading figures in the RCN churches from 1945-1960. VanHarten refers to Piet Jongeling, the RCN parliamentarian representing the GPV (the RCN members’ political party), who argued that the antithesis was the only battle front in the world where Christians were commanded to fight. Prof. K. Schilder, an RCN theologian, exposed Barth’s views as being unscriptural, showing that there is no antithesis between God and man and that the antithesis does not run through one’s heart but runs between two communities: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. He showed how through the ages the great temptation for the church has always been to let go of the antithesis.

It would appear, however, that this strong position on the antithesis by the RCN churches during the first decades after the Liberation, a view certainly not restricted to the RCN at that time, has now come into disrepute. In a chapter titled “Children of the antithesis”, Roel Kuyper says that the antithesis used to be the cornerstone of RCN positions on a range of interrelated views, but that the term ‘antithesis’ has vanished from use: a word of a forgotten past and now, at best, an inactive theological concept. He says that in the past the RCN took a principled position on the antithesis, seeing it as the demarcation line between the church of Jesus Christ and the rest of the world. During that period, he says, maintaining the antithesis was characterised by a strong consolidation of church life, of building high church walls—establishing own schools, own newspaper and other organisations. All this, says Kuyper, promoted a rich and powerful internal life but did little in relation to the world. He added that when the antithesis no longer prepares for spiritual warfare, we lose sight of our purpose and focus on what we have in common with others.

Kuyper says that the RCN of the first decades after the Liberation saw a close link between the antithesis and the church—a visible, lawful, one-and-only, catholic church which separates itself from the false church and calls other Christians to obedience, beginning with the need to join Christ’s true church. Kuyper contends, however, that by placing the antithesis between the true and false church the RCN of that time deprived themselves of experiencing fellowship with many other Christians. He points out that during the 1980s this changed: the RCN gave up their church-exclusive position and began to seek out and work together with other Christians. This, he says, was the RCN ‘breakthrough’: a rejection of the strict church boundaries and of the antithetical church position. The ‘breakthrough’ was ultimately made possible, he adds, by accepting a position that the RCN share the faith with others and that the church choice is a subordinate matter.

Fritz Geerds, in a separate chapter, illustrates how the early RCN view of the antithesis also impacted on their view of culture. He writes that the position of the RCN from 1945-1960 was clear: keep yourself from the sinful things of the world and focus on the church; that was the antithesis every true Christian was obligated to maintain. Since the antithesis refers to two communities of people, the RCN considered that the community of ‘the world’ were people who did not use their talents as office bearers in God’s service but engaged in cultural activity that rebels against God. Their culture was characterised by decadence, personal achievement and a trust in own abilities. In the Bible this community is referred to as Babylon or ‘that great city’. Over against this stands the community characterised by a radical antithesis with the world.  That community applies the cultural mandate, building a culture based on faith and directed to God.  According to Geerds people in this community have been depicted as strangers who feel more at home in the loneliness of the desert than in the busyness of the city. Geerds says that during the 1950s it was the theology of Schilder in particular that gave substance to the term ‘antithesis’. In Christ and Culture Schilder said that there is one nature but two ways to use it.  For example, the one uses stones to build a dance hall, the other uses stones to build a temple. Hence the antithesis determines how we see and use culture.

Hans Werkman’s chapter hooks in on Geerds’ conclusion that the RCN view on culture – TV, film, music, dance, literature, drama and social interaction – was coloured by Schilder’s Christ and Culture.  Whoever thought on culture, he says, began with the Holy Supper community: focus on the church and your position on culture will follow automatically.  The RCN in the 1950s and 1960s believed that art should be tested on the basis of God’s Word.  If it did not fit Philippians 4:8 (“all that is true, all that is noble” etc) the antithesis needed to be applied.  A person was after all first an office-bearer in the service of God and had to choose between Jerusalem and Babylon. Reformed artists were seen as prophets who had to reflect the beauty and perfection of God’s creation. Werkman agrees with Geerds who, following J Douma, is critical of what they see as the RCN’s earlier limited view of art being purpose driven, namely to glorify God, instead of also having value in itself, of being subjectively appreciated for itself.  Moreover, says Werkman, there were RCN leaders in those first decades who did not share Schilder’s position, who held a less-strict church view and who later left the bond and became ‘Buiten Verband’ [outside the RCN bond, later forming the Nederlands Gereformeerd churches].

In a chapter about Piet Jongeling, the RCN politician, E van Middelkoop sees earlier RCN life restricted because of the overarching importance given to the instituted church in relation to every social action and cultural expression. All of life, he says, was made subservient to the ‘continuing reformation’, a reformation that began in the church and from there influenced all aspects of organised life.  He is of the opinion that this dominant position accorded to the church kept RCN life unbalanced and narrow-minded. Honesty, he adds, compels us to acknowledge that the RCN have now largely freed themselves from this, though admittedly not because they have discovered that Scripture says something different but for pragmatic reasons. For example, in politics the GPV (political party originating in the RCN) felt it could achieve more in practice if it amalgamated with Christian parties linked to outside church federations.

In the concluding chapter Prof. M teVelde, lecturer at the RCN’s Theological University at Kampen, profiles the RCN’s view of the church immediately after the Liberation as leading others to say: “They are the people who think they’re the only true church.” TeVelde says that, influenced by Schilder, the church was seen as the power station for the whole broad area of life. As the bride of Christ, the flock of the Good Shepherd, the congregation of true believers, the church was seen to have practical consequences for everyday life.  That’s why the earlier RCN adhered to Article 27-29 BCF, rejecting the Kuyperian view of the pluriformity of the church with its focus on what is invisible, idealistic and beyond the instituted church.  However, according to teVelde, this earlier RCN position was difficult to maintain because of the proliferation of a variety of reformed churches. The RCN position has now changed, he says. Instead of seeing the church as the power station for all of life – politics, work, economy, etc. – the focus has become more on one’s personal faith and personal ethics.

TeVelde believes Schilder’s aim to get away from denominationalism (the idea that the different church bonds are more or less pure but still churches of Christ) was an unattainable ideal. He says that after 1944 the RCN went the way of a new denomination but with the pretension of being the only true catholic church in the Netherlands.  He laments the fact that when this position was opposed in the 1960s it was crushed, leading to a schism (the socalled ‘Buiten Verband’ churches).  Admittedly the Buiten Verband (outside the bond of the RCN) also took issue with the need to be bound to the church’s confessions but, he says, the weakness in the general synod’s decision was that it did not speak to both sides and did not perceive that the RCN tradition reflected a limited and exclusive view of the church.

According to TeVelde the motto of ‘ongoing reformation’, aided by the ‘theory of the ethical conflict’[ii], was unsustainable and fell away in later decades as one after the other RCN organisations were opened up to a broader view of the church, and the confession about the church was broadened to include the bonds of other church groups.  This change took place in the 1980s, he says, as people crossed the boundaries of the church and sought unity with others focussing on what they had in common rather than on differences.  TeVelde says that the earlier RCN view of the church was too central; after all, he adds, the confession about the church is only one part of our confession. He believes the RCN people have often misapplied the antithesis by placing, for example, the views of other Christians on the side of Satan.  He says we can only do justice to the antithesis view if we see what’s behind it: the conviction that there is a huge battle between the spirits in this world.

TeVelde shows some appreciation for the RCN writers of the past in their struggle against a spirit of lukewarmness which failed to do justice to the battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, between faith and unbelief. They saw this battle as needing to be fought in every area of life: in politics and society, in nurturing children at home and education, in art and literature, in church and theology.  This motivated many to promote and build up Free Reformed life in church and various organisations.  He says that this way of thinking has to an extent been lost since the 1980s and has been replaced by a spirit of pragmatism, in which cooperation, compromise and relativism prevails.  However, he believes that in this climate God’s Word still governs the hearts and lives of the people.  For teVelde the kernel is whether we show love, faith and obedience.

In short, te Velde sees the RCN of the first couple of decades as characterised by being principled, aware of a God-given calling or office, aiming for purity, of daring to break with established theories and in standing alone and fighting against doctrinal  errors. He acknowledges that there were positive effects in education, politics, etc., but finds the earlier RCN guilty of haughtiness (hubris!): they were convinced that the Liberation was legitimate and that they were the true church, invented and legitimised their own tradition, were too objective and insufficiently subjective, were anti psychology, were too intolerant of the views of others and were too reluctant to establish ties with other Christians. He believes that their emphasis on the antithesis prevented them from seeing the good in other churches and the good in unbelievers, that their focus on purity led to ‘wetticism” (overemphasizing the law) and perfectionism, and that their push for unity in thinking led to unnecessary polarisation and struggle.

Finally teVelde would like to see a consensus develop about what was valuable in the RCN tradition but also recognition of the weaknesses.  He’d also like to see a broadening of the Scriptural reformed conviction.  For example, instead of focussing on covenant and church we could focus on the centrality of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit but without polarising positions.  Broadening our views could include appreciating those who are ‘confessional reformed’, ‘evangelical reformed’ and ‘experiential reformed’, he said.  It can also be done by keeping up with the various theological developments of our time.  It must, of course, be paired with a deep study of Scripture as the greatest power of the reformed tradition.  TeVelde warns that writers of the past do not stand above those of today and should not have the final say.  We should not be afraid of pointing to their errors and dig up what is still worthwhile and inspirational.

I am dismayed but also challenged by the views expressed in this book. Dismayed that truths that I’d been taught with references to Scripture and the confessions and which underpin our reformed organisations and, indeed, our very existence as reformed churches, are openly criticised and rejected. Dismayed also that, whilst the writers provide a critical overview of the past, there is little attempt to base presently held views on Scripture and confessions. I missed the deep appreciation for what the LORD has done for the RCN in those first decades after the Liberation. Where appreciation was occasionally voiced it was soon undermined by criticism. Clearly the RCN today have difficulties identifying with, and have become estranged from, their past. The writers do not really engage with the Scriptural and confessional grounds earlier RCN writers gave for their views on the covenant, church and antithesis.

However I am also challenged by the writers’ defence of present-day thinking within the RCN. Their confronting opinions obligate me (and, I believe, all of us) to study again these issues in the light of Scripture and the confessions and so, on the basis of that truth, to evaluate (and publish) the views that have led our Dutch sister churches to take a different stand to that of their, and our, forebears.

[i] Vrijgemaakte Vreemdelingen (2007) Mees teVelde and Hans Werkman (eds), De Vuurbaak, Barnveld

[ii] The “ethical conflict” refers to the situation after the Liberation of 1944 when faithful Christians were excluded from what had become the ‘synodical’ churches but were nevertheless asked to remain financial and active members of organisations affiliated with the ‘synodical’ churches.