by Theodore Plantinga
When I was a boy growing up in the Christian Reformed immigrant culture in Canada, many a minister would wear what we called a "toga" when conducting a worship service. [NOTE 1] It was an odd-looking outfit, all black, a bit like a choir robe, but having the effect of making its wearer seem somewhat sinister -- indeed, a man to be feared. We did not see anyone wearing such a thing outside the church -- so limited was our experience at that point.
My best buddy in the congregation to which I belonged was Gary Rubingh, the minister's son. Our minister was Rev. John H. Rubingh (1909-78); he was an excellent pastor who left a deep spiritual impression upon many of us. The congregation was the First Christian Reformed Church of Winnipeg, sometimes also referred to as the College Avenue Church. Gary was a bit of an irreverent fellow, and he was known to speak of his father, when dressed in his toga to conduct Sunday services, as "my dad in his Zorro outfit."
In case you haven't heard of Zorro, he was a (fictional) swashbuckler who lived in Spanish California back in the nineteenth century, as far as I can ascertain. We used to watch him on TV in his magnificent black cape, his partial black mask, and his ever ready sword, willing to take on any and all bad guys. (Zorro also had quite a career in the movies.) Of course he was one of the good guys (like the Lone Ranger, another of my masked heroes of those days), and so when Gary characterized his father's toga as a "Zorro outfit," he was not classifying his father among the bad guys. Gary was very popular in the church, and the older folks often chuckled over him.
What Gary was reflecting back in those days was a mild sense of unease that we as Christian Reformed children felt over the prospect that we were somehow "different." Our church was distinctly Calvinistic in its theology and church governance, but on the level of actual fact -- as opposed to principle -- it was Dutch and saturated with the characteristics associated with an immigrant subculture in its early stages. We as children felt uneasy about the degree of difference that our immigrant status imposed upon us.
Our uneasiness showed up in our names. Those who had been born in the Netherlands brought along distinctively Dutch or Frisian names, which were promptly changed after they arrived in the new land, either by the teachers at the local public school or by savvy members of the Dutch immigrant community who cautioned you that you wouldn't want to admit to anyone that your name was actually such-and-such. I started out as Thede (named after my grandfather), was quickly christened Teddy, and then grew tall enough to be called Ted, which is not sufficiently distinguished, and so it was decided that Ted in short for Theodore, which is the name I still bear to this day (please call me Theo).
The Dutch ethnic character of the church in which I grew up continued to be an issue over the years. Ours was an international denomination, by which I mean that we had many churches on both sides of the Canada-US border. The American members of our denomination had been around much, much longer than we had in Canada, but even they remain fairly conscious of their Dutch roots. Some felt that the Dutch flavor and orientation held the church back, making it harder for the church to attract new members, whether converts to the faith or believers from other churches who were seeking a new spiritual home.
Many years after Rev. Rubingh used to parade around in our church in his "Zorro outfit," Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven, who was the editor of the denomination's official paper (called The Banner), declared that it was time for us to "burn those wooden shoes." We needed to lay our Dutchness aside in order that our primary message and gospel could be more clearly heard by fellow North Americans who had no particular interest in being Dutch. The notion of burning one's wooden shoes became a powerful symbol in Christian Reformed discussion for a number of years afterward. Kuyvenhoven, who was himself an immigrant from the Netherlands and spoke with an accent, clearly had a point.
Now, when it came to striving to fit in and avoiding any appearance of being Dutch or different, my own family was far from typical. Part of the reason for our departure from the usual pattern was my father, Folkert Plantinga (1916-75). He, too, needed a change of name, and so he came to be called Frank. Yet, whether as Folkert or Frank, he stood out -- and sometimes stood alone. First of all, he was something of an unusual fellow with an offbeat sense of humor and quite an ability to entertain others, including his own children. Secondly, he was a Frisian. Now, the Frisians are an ethnic minority within the population of the Netherlands (there are also Frisians living in Denmark and Germany) and speak a language of their own which is quite distinct from Dutch and German; it is closer to English as spoken during the Middle Ages than it is to Dutch.
Of course Frisian immigrants also tended to deny their origins, but my father managed to persuade us that speaking and being Frisian was "cool." He kept us interested and amused and got us to nurture and cherish our ethnic roots alive -- at least, within the family circle. The result was that we did not feel self-conscious when we spoke a few words of Frisian in public or owned up to understanding it.
After some years of isolation from family in the old country, relatives began to arrive from the Netherlands to visit us in the new land. Those relatives (mainly the siblings of my father and mother), accompanied by their respective husbands and wives, had not been schooled in the English language, and so the only way to communicate with them was to speak Frisian. Moreover, some of them were also quite amusing, and so Frisian remained popular in my family and especially in my own heart and mind.
Our Frisian minority status, which extended to being a minority among an immigrant population that was oriented mainly to the Dutch language, has done much to shape my own Christian consciousness. At a very early age, it made me comfortable with the thought that I am, in some deep sense, different from other people. And when I got a little bit older and began to engage in theological and philosophical reflection, I came to see that there are a great many connections between ethnicity and religious identity. A formative experience during my high school years was the reading of H. Richard Niebuhr's stimulating book The Social Sources of Denominationalism. [NOTE 2] And so one result of my being a Frisian and of being my father's son is that I have a somewhat different understanding of certain issues in the Christian life than many of my compatriots in the Calvinistic wing of the Church of Jesus Christ.
During my youth, a handy term for discussing such issues was "lifestyle." It seemed obvious to many of us that Christians are called to pursue a different lifestyle than the people of the world. More specifically, we should strive for a "Reformed lifestyle." But what might that mean, concrete speaking? Was there supposed to be a specifically Reformed way to ride a bicycle? Or should we simply strive to do everything in the best possible way (some people called this "striving for excellence")? And if non-Christians looked and acted like us in their pursuit of excellence, was this a reason for concern?
During my high school days I had quite an interest in church history. We lived on a street in the north end of Winnipeg which featured a Mennonite Brethren Church just down the street, and so we counted quite a number of Mennonites among our neighbors. Now, these were big-city Mennonites who had laid aside much of the distinctive garb that we associate with old-fashioned Anabaptists, but they still came across to me as people willing to stand out as different. The women, for example, stayed away from lipstick and make-up. I admired them then and still do so today. But the folks in my church, eager to shed their immigrant origins and to proclaim themselves Canadian rather than Dutch, were not inclined to stand out. We did not want to be noticed.
Various theologians and historians have managed to shed light on these issues. One who particularly comes to mind is Ernst Troeltsch in his fine book Protestantism and Progress. [NOTE 3] Troeltsch articulates a thesis which is not entirely original with him, namely, that Protestantism -- and especially the Calvinistic side of Protestantism -- likes to identify itself with modernity and progress: see my essay on this book posted elsewhere.
One thread in the identification of Protestantism with progress is the preoccupation with the question whether Christianity, considered especially in its Calvinistic form, is somehow inimical to the development of modern science. A tale often told in history of science settings is that the Christian faith has held back the development of science at every point in its development. Many Christian professors try to refute this story, explaining that Protestantism de-sacralized nature and opened it for study, and stressing that leading scientists such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were Christians; moreover, Newton himself had a lively interest in Biblical and theological matters, and so forth.
One could move to other areas as well and make the case, as Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was much inclined to do, that Christianity, in its Calvinistic expression in particular, has a great deal to do with the development of our democratic freedoms and system of governance. One could then argue that the Presbyterian form of church government, which is used in both Reformed and Presbyterian churches, was an early implementation of democratic principles outside the sphere of the state. In the countries in which such church governance played a prominent role, such as Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, democracy flourished. And so Calvinistic Christianity is clearly on the side of modernity and progress.
Of course there are still small Calvinistic churches that are wary of modern medicine -- or some of its aspects, at least -- and wish to leave healing up to the Lord rather than the doctors, but such thinking is becoming rarer. Those who continue to cling to it know that one way to implement it is to refuse all vaccinations. But by and large, the Calvinists have embraced the new medical technologies. And then there is the question of insurance: does it take away from God's promise and prerogative to care for us when we are in need? Most Calvinists now carry insurance, for they pride themselves on being up-to-date. Technophobes and environmental Jeremiahs are more likely to be Anabaptists than Calvinists.
I grew up with such "progressive" thinking and generally assented to it, although I slowly developed into something of an environmental alarmist. Yet, being a Frisian and the son of my father, I always retained an admiration for those who were willing to stand out and be different, whether as individuals or as an entire group. And so, throughout my life, I've done quite a bit of reading about those groups and churches within the Christian fold that live apart or set themselves apart by curious dress and customs and so forth. I was not strongly tempted to join such a group myself, but later in life I wound up in an Anglican church and then began to realize that Anglicanism actually represents a lesser form of the Christian willingness to be different. In the Anglican case the difference applies mainly to how the clergy conduct themselves and what happens in the formal worship service, for Anglicans are not people you can pick out on the street. But Anglicanism definitely has its quirky side, rooted in a long history. Its willingness to be different has a profound appeal for me.
And this gets me back to the toga worn by the Reformed minister of yesteryear. We scarcely see such a thing on a minister anymore: a significant exception in the circles in which I move is Rev. Henry De Bolster. In the Presbyterian world, which is closely related to the Reformed world, it is a widespread practice for ministers to wear clerical collars in the course of their day-to-day work, e.g. when making hospital visits. And some ministers conduct services in vestments that are not unlike those worn by Anglican priests. In these regards they have influenced their colleagues in the Reformed churches, for some of them have also taken to wearing a clerical collar. I believe this is a healthy development. I recently read an article in which a minister in the Netherlands reported on a situation in Indonesia where not only the Reformed minister stands out from the congregation by his dress during the worship service but the elders and deacons as well. Such a thing would look rather strange in North America, where we usually draw the line at name tags to identify elders and deacons.
One reason why the tide seems to have turned against clerical dress is that a great many Reformed and Presbyterian churches have decided that Sunday morning must include what is nowadays called a "seeker" service, whether as the sole service of the morning or as one of two. The goal, of course, is evangelism. What is presupposed in such an approach to evangelism is that the worship service should be used for this purpose. It then follows that the believers and church members must be clear on what the worship service is about: they are participants in a process aimed mainly at those who might happen to wander in from the street.
And just as Dutch immigrant children in Winnipeg in the 1950s could be made to feel uneasy if they sensed that they were different or that they were in the presence of something different or unusual, "seekers" are easily put off. Hence special vestments for the clergy are to be avoided. Many Reformed and Presbyterian ministers had already concluded years ago that they should come to the service attired simply in a suit. It used to be a black suit, but then other colors gradually became acceptable. Eventually a sports jacket with dress slacks could be seen on the pulpit as well. But with the new seeker emphasis, every form of dressing up is to be avoided. And so the minister leading the service must look casual and must wear the sort of garb that people typically wear on a weekend. The members of the church who attend the seeker service should do likewise, for there must be no suggestion that one might not be sufficiently dressed up to go to church.
The emphasis on making people feel comfortable also extends to what happens within the service. Typically there will be some singing, preaching of one sort or another, however casually launched and presented (nowadays the notion of preaching from a pulpit has gone by the board in a great many churches), some praying, and then there are the sacraments. In this essay I will say nothing about baptism and how it is to be administered, except that one normally expects to be baptized only once in one's lifetime. The celebration of the Lord's supper or holy communion takes place much more often. And so, in connection with the sacraments -- sometimes called "mysteries" by our theologians -- the question can be asked whether they might not put some people off. Is there a way to celebrate the sacrament that will leave people feeling comfortable and avoid the impression of mumbo-jumbo?
Two episodes from my own life may shed some light on the possibilities. The first happened back in my days in the First Christian Reformed Church of Winnipeg. We were celebrating the Lord's supper, which happened only once every three months, and through some oversight we wound up not having sufficient bread for the people attending the service. What to do? No problem. An elder disappeared from the sanctuary and promptly returned carrying a loaf I recognized to be Weston's Bread. Now this was the very same brand of bread that we ate at home, and so the wrapping in which it came was utterly familiar to me. The elder carried the loaf of "store-bought" bread into the sanctuary, opened it, took out a couple of slices, and proceeded to break them into smaller bits suitable for use at communion.
Did he do anything wrong here? Presumably not, but it felt to me as though a spell had been broken. Here the congregation -- in those days I was not yet partaking of communion, for I was only a child and had not made public profession of faith, which was the step that opened the door to the sacraments -- was being exposed to what we called holy mysteries. And yet this elder had made it utterly clear that the bread of the Lord's supper was simply what you could buy in the supermarket on any of the business days of the week -- no big deal, so to speak. I felt let down.
The second experience (many years later) also took place in a Christian Reformed setting, but it was far from home. I was attending a Sunday-morning service in what was a self-styled progressive Christian Reformed church, and it turned out to be a communion service. What happened at this service was not casual or unplanned: I am convinced that it was intended to make a theological point. Communion was served by small children of the congregation who went around the auditorium (it was not a traditional church sanctuary) with trays of goodies including items like fruit and crackers, making sure that everyone got some or was offered some. And so we partook and together enjoyed not a formal meal but something of a snack. There was so much food on the trays that we also had to pay attention that the body of the Lord (for those of us who still adhered to a superstitious theology) did not somehow wind up on the floor getting crushed underfoot or draining into the carpet as the pulp and juice of grapes. By this point in my life I was not surprised at what I was seeing and experiencing, but it left me feeling disturbed. I knew that no mockery of the sacrament was intended, but again a certain point was being made: the sacrament is basically hospitality on the part of God's people as they share a meal with others. When we extend such hospitality, we should remember the sacrificial death of our Lord, for he instructed us not to forget him. The mystery had once again been dispelled.
This unusual celebration of the sacrament has often come to mind when I think about seekers' services and what they might look like. The general norm seems to be that whatever happens in such a worship service must be in continuity with the rest of our lives, so that if the "unchurched," by which I mean people who have no background in church attendance whatsoever and are not familiar with the cermonies we build into worship, should drift into a service, they would have no need to feel awkward or uneasy or out of place.
As progressive Protestants, we presumably wish to set ourselves off from the Roman Catholics, who, to this day, allow a certain element of mystery and obscurity to hover over their formal services. Moreover, many of them continue to claim that the sacrament is just for the local folks, that is to say, those who are officially Catholic. Mystery is alive and well, accompanied by incense, the ringing of bells, and so forth. And while those who conduct the service do not wear Zorro outfits, their vestments are indeed impressive. Likewise, the church is typically unlike a secular auditorium: it seems to have its own unique atmosphere and style of imagery. Are these good things?
It seems to me that there is a deep impulse within the Calvinistic world to move toward the kind of worship we see in the seeker services and to demand continuity between what happens in church and what happens out there in the culture. And it's not simply a matter of Calvinists being immigrants and wanting to fit in when they come to the new world. I believe the desire for continuity with the culture stems from the fundamental impulse within much of the Calvinistic world to engage in "transformation," that famous term which has been popularized especially by H. Richard Niebuhr. [NOTE 4] Nicholas Wolterstorff has told us that Calvinism is "world-formative Christianity." [NOTE 5] In this regard, Calvinism sets itself off from Lutheranism, which it often criticizes for its law/gospel split, a split that is alleged to leave room for a dualistic approach to the Christian life. And it is noteworthy that vestments for the clergy and a high degree of formality in liturgy are more likely to be found among the Lutherans than in Calvinistic churches. In this regard, Lutheranism is more like Anglicanism.
In mainline Calvinism, it seems to me, there can be no long-standing desire to be different. In this regard, the Calvinists form quite a contrast with the believing Jews, even though both traditions manifest deep respect for the Old Testament. It is my thesis that because Calvinism goes a long way in the direction sketched by Troeltsch and comes to embrace the task of influencing and transforming the culture around it, it eventually distances itself more and more from the Old Testament and from the preoccupations and quaint worship practices that believing Jews continue to find moving and inspiring. The Jews do not wear Zorro outfits, but in cities all over the Western world they can still be seen in public wearing distinctive garb, such as the yarmulke, as they walk down the street to their synagogue services. And what happens within the Jewish worship service is a long, long way from meeting the norms of the seeker service. It appears that the Jews, despite many centuries of persecution and oppression, are generally comfortable with who they are.
But do the Calvinists know who they are? As Calvinism becomes more progressive and -- dare I say it? -- liberal, it begins to lose its sense of what it is. As I indicated earlier, the Calvinist impulse is not to seek or glorify difference from the world -- at least, not difference that manifests itself in external respects. If you are told repeatedly that you and your community are in the process of influencing and changing and transforming the world, why would you seek to be different from the world? After all, the world is destined to be conformed more and more to what you stand for and look like.
What happens over time, I suspect, is that people come to the realization -- if only unconsciously -- that this business of transforming the local culture is not really happening. In short, they begin to ask themselves: who are we kidding anyway? But by then the impulse to be essentially like the world in cultural respects, including dress, is so deeply ingrained that it is well nigh inconceivable that one might deliberately take measures to act different or to look different.
Even so, there is a minority in the Calvinist world that admires those churches and Christian groups that dare to be somewhat quirky. This Calvinist minority then begins to adopt some of their practices, whether in the form of special clerical garb or Anglican-sounding liturgical touches introduced into the worship service -- just the sort of thing that is forbidden under the seeker formula for how to construct a worship service (see my Myodicy essay "Just Give Them What They Want"). Some of these Calvinists eventually wind up on what Robert Webber has come to call "the Canterbury trail" [NOTE 6]
Those who do try to innovate in a liturgical and sacramental direction and advocate borrowing from the Anglicans rather than joining them find that new traditions are very hard to establish. Many of the long-standing members of the local church may pull up their noses and wonder what has gotten into the minister. Some may worry that we will wind up looking like the Roman Catholics, something which, it is then presupposed, is automatically bad. Even so, progress in a more sacramental and liturgical direction may be made in settings where the congregation is fairly well educated or is under the influence of a Christian institution of higher education, where the Canterbury trail looks more enticing than it does for other Christians who have a stronger orientation to television and popular culture. But in the end, not a great deal comes of introducing new traditions that would promote Christian distinctiveness, whether such innovations pertain to the role and appearance of the clergy or simply what happens in a worship service.
I suspect that these matters also play a role in the general reluctance of Calvinistic Christians to embrace history -- in the sense of their own history -- as a major component of their identity (see also my Myodicy essay on whether the reformational movement needs a history). Here again a comparison with the Anabaptists and the Anglicans is of interest. The Anabaptists do not have grand ambitions about transforming the world; the old-fashioned ones are content to keep apart from most of the world's wickedness, thinking of themselves as having a witness task. Their conception of Christian history has to do especially with the persecution and suffering they have endured over the centuries because of their faithfulness to Christ. Here the book Martyrs' Mirror, [NOTE 7] from which I read to my philosophy of history class each time I teach the course, is a powerful indication of a mentality. In the Anglican world, there is not much of a sense of history understood as a story of persecution, since Anglicans have suffered but little in that regard. But there is a strong sense of continuity with the history not just of the Church in (or of) England since the days of Henry VIII (the formal beginnings of Anglicanism) but with the church that dates all the way back to the earliest centuries of the Christian era. Many Anglican practices and traditions are intended to draw our minds and hearts back to earlier points in the history of the church. Moreover, the liturgical calendar is followed in giving structure to the worship services week by week.
In the Calvinistic churches that are influenced by the legacy of transformational thinking (Niebuhr and company), one finds no strong consciousness of history in the sense of the history of the church to which one belongs. I believe there is a reason for this lack, namely, a connection that seems to exist between a specific form of historical consciousness, on the one hand, and the willingness to be different and to take steps to reinforce that sense of difference, on the other.
The language of "minoritarianism" and "majoritarianism" can help us understand the issues we confront here. A culture that is comfortable in its majoritarian status will tend to have less historical consciousness than a minoritarian subculture that is forced to work hard just to stay in the same place. The theme in the historical instruction that is given in a majoritarian or mainline Christian church community may sound roughly like this: history has shown that we're the best, and there is no longer any real opposition to what we stand for. Here I am reminded especially of Francis Fukuyama and his overly hasty optimistic thesis after the end of the Cold War, which he eventually inscribed in his famous book exploring the notion that we had now come to "the end of history." [NOTE 8] Questions of who we are and how we got here seem to be of secondary importance.
Evidence for my thesis regarding the lack of historical consciousness in a majoritarian Christian community can be found by studying the situation of the Canadian Reformed churches, which are the North American extension of the Klaas Schilder split that took place in 1944 in the Netherlands. (The few USA congregations that are affiliated with this denomination call themselves "American Reformed.") These churches, while they are definitely Calvinistic and display some of the properties that I have associated with Calvinism in this essay, nevertheless have a very strong historical consciousness, which turns out to be somewhat reminiscent of the historical awareness we find among Mennonites or Anabaptists. More specifically, the Canadian Reformed maintain a lively interest in, and commitment to, a certain understanding of how they came to stand apart from the larger Dutch Reformed world. [NOTE 9]
Just now, these churches in North America are seeking union with another body of churches, made up largely of recent seceders from the Christian Reformed denomination. The latter churches are called United Reformed. One of the sticking points, as far as I can tell (bear in mind that I speak as an outside observer), is that there is an intense historical consciousness on the Canadian Reformed side that is not matched on the United Reformed side. It is as though, for the latter group, one simply finds oneself drifting along the historical stream and then begins to look for like-minded brothers and sisters with whom to form bonds that eventually might become union and therefore have the potential to help foster further resistance to the prevailing current. After all, one should not be "blown about by every wind of doctrine" (see Ephesians 4:14). There is strength -- and perhaps ballast -- in numbers. But a shared history is not needed. And so, if there is to be a union, the Canadian Reformed will have to quit obsessing about their own history; it would be better if they would agree to leave it at the door, so to speak. Such, at least, is the thinking of some of the United Reformed folks contemplating union with the Canadian Reformed.
As I struggle to formulate a conclusion, I am tempted to speak of a crisis in the Calvinistic world, but I will refrain from doing so. "Crisis" is too strong a term for what I think I see. A better way to characterize what goes on -- and also what fails to happen -- is to speak of "drift." Are Christians self-consciously distinct from the culture around them? It appears to me that many Calvinistic churches and communities are essentially adrift when it comes to their relationship to their own history and development. If we are lost at sea, clinging to something that keeps us afloat, we have no control over where we are going. We sense that the current propels us this way and that, and we become fearful: where are we headed? Being adrift at sea is a far cry from navigating; it is not to be confused with steering, with heading toward a certain objective or port.
The Calvinistic situation, it seems to me, is one of drift insofar as the earlier commendable desire to transform and shape the culture has largely been replaced by a sad admission that it is not coming to much (we would not wish to be accused of "triumphalism"). Deep in our hearts lies the sense that it is not likely to come to much in the future either. Yet for a great many Calvinists, no further consequences have been drawn from this admission. The culture is then the current, and one dare not swim against the stream. After all, you can't fight city hall. Hence we make our little adjustments (we should not be in the vanguard when it comes to recognizing same-sex marriage), and it never occurs to anyone that the Zorro outfit could be pulled from the closet and dusted off and put to use once once again. END
"Toga" is a Latin term for a cermonial gown that makes it clear that the person wearing it holds some sort of office. Some of the ancient Romans wore togas.
Originally published by H. Holt and Company of New York in 1929.
Protestantism and Progress: The Significance of Protestantism for the Rise of the Modern World (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1986).
See especially the chapter entitled "Christ the Transformer of Culture" in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951).
See Chapter 1 of Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).
See his book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985).
This book bears the title The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians. In smaller print, as a sort of subtitle, we read further "... who baptized only upon Confession of Faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Savior, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660." My copy was published by the Mennonite Publishing Company of Elkhart, Indiana, in 1886 and comprises some 1,093 big pages, each one composed of two columns of print. There is a great deal of suffering to remember!]]
The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).]]
The story is too long and complex to be summed up in a note. Much of it is told in two books I have translated: Rudolf Van Reest's Schilder's Struggle for the Unity of the Church (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1990) and Douwe Van Dijk's My Path to Liberation: Reflections on My Life in the Ministry of the Word of God (Inheritance Publications, 2004). See also Theodore Plantinga, ed. Seeking Our Brothers in the Light: A Plea for Reformed Ecumenicity (Inheritance Publications, 1992).
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