Myodicy, Issue 26, June 2006

The Reformational Movement:
Technology and Verzuiling

by Theodore Plantinga

NOTE: This essay on the reformational movement in North America is the third in a series. Click here to go to the first installment. Subsequent installments will appear in future issues of Myodicy. The series consists not just of narrative essays in which ideas, persons and institutions are discussed but also includes files in which documents of one sort or another that shed some light on the movement and its history are presented. In addition there is a web page devoted to the "cast of characters" and another that provides basic information about many of the institutions and organizations involved in the story. For an overview of the series and the web pages or files of which it is comprised, along with links to those files, click here.

In touch with Amsterdam

The purpose of this series of essays on the history of the reformational movement is not just to figure out and explain what ideas were entertained in the heads of Herman Dooyeweerd, D.H.T. Vollenhoven and Evan Runner; we are also interested in exploring the ideas that lived in the hearts and minds of the humble foot soldiers who together constituted the reformational movement, especially in North America. And the North American representatives looked to Evan Runner as the conduit and ultimate authority regarding the unique brand of Calvinism to which they adhered.

One of the points and emphases they had picked up from Runner was that one should pay close attention to what goes on in the Netherlands, for that country was in many respects a model for Christian life in the world. The Dutch historian Peter van Rooden observes: "In the 1950s, the Netherlands, along with Ireland, had become the most Christian country in Europe, whatever yardstick one might care to use." [NOTE vanrooden33] Runner's profound respect for the Netherlands was coupled by his love of all things Dutch (which extended to his Dutch wife).

Runner, ever the enthusiast, had some striking and original ways to communicate his predilections to his followers. One of these was told to me by William Spoelhof, who served as president of Calvin College from the year 1951 (the year Runner arrived on campus) to the year 1976. When I interviewed Spoelhof about Runner and his contribution to the reformational tradition, one of the things he told me is that during his earliest years at Calvin, Runner used to wear two wristwatches: one of them was set to local Grand Rapids time, and the other one was tuned to Amsterdam. And so, with just a brief glance at his wrist he could tell what time it was in Amsterdam. Of course he also loved to travel to Amsterdam, and did so especially in the later years of his life.

We as his students were supposed to head there as well. It was understood that if you were reformational and a Groen Club member and had aspirations for higher study and had potential for a Ph.D. and so forth, you would go to the Free University of Amsterdam to study. The ideas was not that we would all become philosophers and study directly under Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven; indeed, the emphasis was on the many modal aspects that needed attention. Corresponding to those modal aspects were a series of primary sciences that were in dire need of reformation. And so, when you reported to the Free University for study, you wound up under the tutelage of a professor or professors who worked in the discipline you had chosen, who might or might not be followers of the philosophy of the law-idea. But no matter -- you would be breathing the same air as had been breathed by Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven and their Dutch associates.

Disappointment in Amsterdam

This expectation was still in the air when I was approaching graduation from Calvin in 1968. By that point Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven were respectively 74 and 76 years of age and had retired from active duty. But one could still go to Amsterdam to study under the lesser lights.

I never did so, but some others did. J. Glenn Friesen, who was just a few years behind me in age and was a Dooyeweerd enthusiast but not a Runner student, did make the pilgrimage and signed up for studies at the Free University, where he wound up under the tutelage of Hendrik Van Riessen (1911-2000). But he was deeply disappointed in what he found there and discontinued his studies. [NOTE friesen33] I made some tentative explorations toward such study myself and tried to take up contact with Johan van der Hoeven, who passed my letter of inquiry on to an assistant. From my limited knowledge of Van der Hoeven, I did not yet see in him one who could be considered as continuing the tradition of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, although he seemed a knowledgeable interpreter of the twentieth-century European philosophy.

Richard J. Mouw has made an interesting observation about Runner and a cultural decision he made while teaching in his distinctly North American setting:

... Professor Evan Runner of Calvin College ... chose not to emphasize the philosophical differences that existed between "reformational" thinkers in the Netherlands. While philosophers of the Free University were openly discussing important disagreements between Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven, Mekkes, Van Riessen, and the like, Runner stressed to students the consensus elements among these thinkers, downplaying differences and nuances. [NOTE mouw33]

What Friesen and others who made the pilgrimage to Amsterdam discovered when they got there, which they now acknowledge freely in their conversations with me, is that the differences between Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd were much more substantial than the Groen Clubbers had realized when they sat in those heady meetings back in the 1950s and 1960s. Was Runner, then, no real Dooyeweerdian? Kerry Hollingsworth, who has studied Runner's unpublished writings, believes that he was moving toward Dooyeweerd and away from Vollenhoven as the Grand Rapids years went by. [NOTE hollingsworth33] And in the years and decades that have passed since the death of Dooyeweerd, the philosophers at the Free University have continued to diverge in various ways. Reformational philosophy understood in a broad sense continues to be a going concern, but pure adherence to either Dooyeweerd or Vollenhoven is something of a rarity. And so the Amsterdam name as a brand in philosophy has lost something of its former glory.

Keep up your Dutch!

One way that Runner tried to keep in touch with Amsterdam and the Dutch was through their language, which he loved to speak. (Remember that he was American-born, and of Scots-Irish descent!) I distinctly recall two occasions on which his love of speaking Dutch seemed to me oddly out of place. The first one bears on a difficult and somewhat painful episode in my own life. When I was a first-year student at Calvin, my family was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where one of the local Christian Reformed pastors was Harry Van Dyken (1917-85). Rev. Van Dyken was well-known in the denomination for his markedly conservative stance; eventually he pulled out and became one of the founders of the denomination known officially as the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches. While he was not our pastor, he did have quite an influence outside his own congregation. And in the time between my visit home for the Christmas vacation of 1964-65 and my settling into studies again in Grand Rapids as I finished the first semester, this powerful and influential minister managed to persuade my father, Folkert Plantinga (1916-1975), that it was imperative that his son Theodore and also his son Don be withdrawn from study at Calvin College and be sent to a much safer study environment, namely, Dordt College. Now, my father was not one to be ordered about or easily persuaded, but in this case he bowed to Rev. Van Dyken's wisdom. And so he showed up in Grand Rapids not long after I had said farewell to him in Winnipeg, telling me that he had come to pull the two of us (Don had also studied under Runner) out of Calvin and send us to Dordt.

I was flabbergasted and quite upset at this prospect. What to do? I immediately contacted Runner, who agreed to see my father and me in private at his home at 1220 Thomas Street SE. There a lengthy and heartfelt conversation ensued, the result of which was that we would stay put. Runner managed to persuade my father that although the picture that Rev. Van Dyken had painted was not altogether inaccurate, his advice about pulling out should not be followed. I mention this story because Runner insisted on speaking Dutch to my father throughout the entire conversation. It struck me as very odd at the time.

Now, to understand the significance of this story, one must be aware that my father and I are Frisians. And Frisians, while they need to be able to speak Dutch, [NOTE frisian33] generally can do so, but many of them prefer to avoid it. My father had certainly mastered English by that point in his life and would much rather have conducted the conversation in English. But Runner insisted on speaking Dutch. It was as though no opportunity to speak Dutch was to be passed up.

I saw this tendency illustrated again some three and a half years later when I graduated from Calvin. After the ceremony on May 25, 1968, I was standing outdoors, chatting with Professor Runner and my old friend Henry Vander Goot, another Frisian. My younger brother Richard (generally called Rick) joined the group, and so I introduced him to Professor Runner. Runner immediately proceeded to address Rick with a little speech of congratulation on his brother's graduation -- and it was all in Dutch! Rick looked a little puzzled -- and responded in Frisian. Runner didn't get it, and Henry burst out laughing. Rick was nine years old at the time. Now, it happens that in later years Rick also learned Dutch and became a professor. But at that point he was an unusual boy in that, in addition to English, he spoke and understood some Frisian, which was not his native language but the language of his immigrant parents. (Rick was born in Canada some eight and a half years after our arrival.)

Runner's tendency to push the use of Dutch at every opportunity was not simply a matter of encouraging students and other folk to retain the language of their homeland. That by itself would have been a good policy, and it is certainly one that I encourage; therefore, if I find a student in my class who is of German ancestry and still knows some German from home, I make a point of addressing a bit of German to him every now and then in order to encourage and affirm him in this respect. And I would speak Polish to a student of Polish descent if I knew any Polish; indeed, I make it a point to encourage any student in whatever language he may bring with him from home.

But this was not Runner's attitude with regard to the Frisians. Whenever it was pointed out to him that this or that person was Frisian, he tended to make a joke of the matter. Perhaps it puzzled him that Frisians who could speak Dutch did not do so whenever they got the chance. In any event, Runner's little jokes did make me uncomfortable, but only to a mild degree. And they indicated that Runner had no particular love of Frisians as such.

Now, there were a number of Frisians in the reformational movement (Henry Vander Goot among them), but not all of them liked to speak Frisian. Bernard Zylstra (1934-86) comes to mind in particular. In my days under his tutelage I would occasionally address him in Frisian, and it would be clear that he understood, but he would not respond in kind. Yet he did enjoy chatting in Dutch. From Zylstra's behavior, too, it was clear that Dutch had a special status in the minds of many of the reformationals. There was something about the Dutch that needed to be emulated.

Part of the reason for holding Dutch aloft is that for many years Dutch was the primary language of reformational scholarship. It was therefore thought that in the reformational community we ought to place a premium on knowledge of the Dutch language. Those of us who grew up in immigrant circumstances and were familiar with Dutch as a second language or third (as in my own case) were in a privileged position in terms of access to writings that were valuable for our studies. Certain other reformationals with no Dutch immigrant background have taken the trouble to learn Dutch, and there were also some who set out in quest of this objective but failed to reach it.

In any event, whether one is Dutch or not in ethnic respects, the language needs to be respected and held high. One reason why Redeemer University College has long been a center of reformational scholarship is that it included in its faculty a fair number of professors who retained enough Dutch to be able to make use of the impressive collection of Dutch books (many of them in the reformational vein) that are contained in Redeemer's library.

Even to this day, Redeemer professors are known to comment on the strategic importance of the Dutch language for the reformational movement. Among them is Al Wolters, who observes:

Although I would like in this way to relativize the specifically Dutch connections of neocalvinism and the reformational movement, I would also like to emphasize the value of retaining a connection with its Dutch roots. Especially in North America, but more broadly in the English-speaking world, there is a dearth of young neocalvinists who make it their business to learn Dutch well enough to read it, or who show an interest in the works and historical context of men like Groen Van Prinsterer and Kuyper. There is a wealth of untranslated scholarly work done in this tradition -- not only in philosophy and theology, but in a wide range of other disciplines, from physics to psychiatry -- which is largely inaccessible to its non-Dutch-speaking heirs. [NOTE wolters33]

Kuyper's great accomplishment

It appears, then, that there was something special and unique about the Netherlands, something from which the entire world could learn. To be reformational meant, in part, affirming the special character of the Dutch situation, which was due in good measure to the vision and leadership of Kuyper, widely acknowledged as a leader without parallel among the Dutch Reformed. But one might wonder: just what did Kuyper do that was so special? Jack Rogers, a Presbyterian who went to the Free University for his doctorate, explained: "A man named Abraham Kuyper sparked the reorganization of his whole country." [NOTE rogers33] George Harinck, a historian, points to Kuyper's great historical influence as the factor that sets him apart from so many other idea men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

The reason that Kuyper today is still of more interest than other Christian social thinkers is that he not only had some interesting thoughts but that he made them work, as well. He was not just a social thinker, but, more than any other Dutchman, he changed Dutch society. [NOTE harinck33]

So what was this great change that Kuyper brought about? One way to sum it up is to say that he implemented "verzuiling" in the Netherlands. Now, the Dutch term "verzuiling" is not widely understood in English-speaking circles -- not even by reformationals. Therefore I should immediately translate it. The standard English equivalent is "pillarization," but this term does not communicate much to people either. [NOTE ruppert33] Therefore, in this essay I will beg the reader's indulgence and continue to use the original Dutch. An approximation of how the word should be pronounced will help: fur-ZYL-ing.

Freedom for each faith

The Netherlands is not the only country in which something like verzuiling came to play an important role in the way religion and society were to be related to one another. Elements of verzuiling are to be found in a great many countries, including Canada. So what appeared to be needed in Canada and the United States -- this, at least, is how things looked to my young reformational eyes -- was an adoption of the fuller and purer system of verzuiling that had prevailed in the Netherlands. Kuyper made a wonderful start and showed us the way. Now it was time for us to take his message further in other countries.

Because the term "verzuiling" does not effectively communicate the notion behind the term, the idea often gets discussed apart from the term as such. The need for some such system as "verzuiling" was keenly felt by Runner when he contemplated the situation of the Dutch Calvinists in North America, and especially in Canada, where he quickly developed a following among the recent Dutch immigrants who still had a keen sense of what it was that Abraham Kuyper had stood for in the old country. Bernard Zylstra explains:

In 1945, Dutch society was structured to give the equal protection of the law to humanist, Roman Catholic, and Protestant institutions in the sectors of health, education, and welfare. This structure was not a remnant of medievalism. It was the direct result of the challenge to the liberal-conservative monopoly that controlled Dutch politics after the French Revolution. The challenge was largely initiated by Groen van Prinsterer, organized by Abraham Kuyper, and supported by the Roman Catholics. ... This religiously pluriform democracy guaranteed equality before the law of spiritually different schools, universities, labor unions, broadcasting corporations, health and welfare institutions, etc. In other words, Dutch society was structured to give proportionate justice to both humanist and Christian institutions. [NOTE zylstra33]

During my student days one of our favorite examples of verzuiling in action was the Christian Labour Association of Canada. This reformational organization would often invite Runner to its meetings to deliver an inspiring address. In one of those addresses he declared:

We Christians no longer wish to impose our views on others who do not agree with us. We simply do not wish the humanist dogma to be imposed on us. We want each faith to be free to organize the several areas of life-struggle, at least those where the crucial struggles of a particular era are concentrated. [NOTE runner33]

God was in the air

To understand the reformational movement, one must realize that the love of so many things Dutch (please note that I am not saying: all things Dutch) was not limited to certain sectors of life and certain types of organizations. There was something wholesome about the Netherlands as a whole, something that set it apart from virtually all other countries. What was it?

Anthony Bailey wrote an intriguing book about the Netherlands and published it in 1970, before a lot of the recent changes that have caused many people in North America (including reformationals) to say that they no longer take much delight in visiting the Netherlands. (One hears that in Amsterdam there are now too many people who don't look Dutch, too many people smoking pot, and so forth.) What makes -- or made -- the Netherlands special, also for non-Reformed reformationals who made the pilgrimage, was a unique understanding of religion and its place in life in general. In his book, which was entitled The Light in Holland, Bailey observes:

... God is in the air in Holland -- religion is taken with a seriousness that doesn't seem to exist in many other so-called Christian countries. Even the unchurchly, the buitenkerkelijke, make sure that you understand that their being outside an institutional church has nothing to do with lacking a religious temperament. [NOTE bailey33]

For many observers of the Dutch situation in recent decades, the bloom is off the rose. It is no longer so widely believed that Kuyper's verzuiling is the ideal solution to questions of the relation between religion and culture or between religion and society. Indeed, verzuiling might even lead to the promotion of jihad thinking in schools that are paid for with tax dollars! The historian James C. Kennedy observes:

At some point, the orthodox Protestant subculture, like its Dutch Catholic counterpart, had become bloodless, less inspired by Kuyperian ideas than driven by institutional inertia. By mid-century, Kuyperian sphere sovereignty had triumphed with a vengeance. A whole subculture was set in place, with its own schools, clubs, and welfare agencies, increasingly subsidized by state money. A process of verstatelijking -- literally, State-ization -- had turned private institutions into virtual branches of the State.

Verzuiling called into question

Of course the system put in place by Kuyper (who died in 1920) would eventually need renewal. When the second world war forced the Dutch to face new challenges, many patriotic Dutchmen came to know one another in a new and deeper way as they faced a common foe. Some dreamed of a future society in which verzuiling would be dismantled, so that people from different faith communities would meet and mingle and cooperate in everyday life. The Dutch even have a name for such a process: ontzuiling. But others insisted on retaining the old system, although it was to prove quite a challenge. Kennedy observes:

Attempts to reanimate the complex of orthodox Protestant organizations after the war, especially through the followers of Dooyeweerd, failed. Separated by decades from the source of inspiration, the political and religious ardor of many orthodox Protestants cooled, indeed, if many members of the younger generation had ever known this enthusiasm. Here, too, the Kuyperian legacy became oppressive and alienating, as subcultural management largely replaced a sense of mission and purpose. It was this orthodox Protestant subculture that was destined to implode in the 1960s. By the early 1960s, then, it was not only that Kuyper's legacy had become burdensome, but that it was largely forgotten in bureaucratic arrangements; and also, it should be added, in the flush of unprecedented prosperity. For those who wanted to see orthodox Protestant life rejuvenated, applied "sphere sovereignty" and the separate Protestant organizations created by the "antithesis," had become a problem, rather than a solution, to Christian calling in the world. [NOTE kennedy33]

So what went wrong? May we conclude that those who were entrusted with the legacy of verzuiling had somehow departed from Kuyper's instructions? This is essentially what Vincent Bacote, a Kuyper enthusiast, maintains. [NOTE bacote33] There were critics of the old order who maintained that the verzuiling system reflected the nineteenth century and simply would not be able to sustain itself in the dynamic twentieth century. Among them was J.A.W. Burger:

I believe that the Christian parties -- built as they are on an all-embracing closed system of thought (pillars!) are nineteenth-century in character. They do not fit into the twentieth century. [NOTE burger33]

Some may dismiss Burger's criticism as facile and insist that there was much more to verzuiling. Indeed, those who wish to safeguard Kuyper's legacy might conceivably argue that what Kuyper had in mind is not what eventually emerged in the Netherlands, just as some Communists will tell you that Communism was never really tried in the Soviet Union and therefore cannot be said to have failed. As for Kennedy, he does not settle the issue for us:

Kuyper's precise role in the creation of subcultural segmentation -- commonly known as verzuiling in Dutch and pillarization in English -- is a matter of debate, but it seems incontrovertible that the Dutch orthodox Protestant life in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century was very much shaped by Kuyper's integrated vision. Kuyper remained, in life and in death, the first citizen of the subculture that he had helped to create. His vision, set forth both by him and his successors, determined the boundaries of thinking and behavior within this world. [NOTE kennedy44]

The historian Peter van Rooden places more blame directly on Kuyper's shoulders:

The current de-ecclesiasticizing of the Netherlands, the greatest in all the world, is a direct consequence of the close bond that had been established between Christian faith and the pillarized (verzuild) society. It was a reaction to something that had been successful for a century -- not the culmination of an age-old process of secularization. Kuyper's strategy had tied religion too closely to membership in a particular group, a segment of the nation. Now that people no longer wish to belong to such particular groups, they don't want religion anymore, for religion, in the Netherlands -- for both those who stand outside it and those who are members of churches -- is still generally defined as something that confers a special social identity upon you, something that sets you apart. [NOTE vanrooden44]


As I prepared to write this essay, I discussed the concept of verzuiling with various people. Some pointed to the notion, now familiar in English-language writings, of "consociational democracy," which is associated especially with the theorists Hans Daalder and Arend Lijphart. Harry Van Dyke prefers to speak of "institutionalized ideological pluralism." Whatever the woes of the Netherlands and the new terminology proposed by some, verzuiling is still a notion that is favored by many Christian and reformational thinkers. While I myself am no expert in matters political, I do believe I can stand behind their hopes and ideals in this regard.

What is not widely understood by people who love the term "consociational democracy" is that verzuiling, as it operated in the lives of Christian people who loved Kuyper, often had nothing to do with politics and government. Its immediate implementation could be seen in a process that we might call "denominalization," but then as applied to organizations outside the church. That Christians are fragmented into various denominations means that -- by and large -- they leave one another alone on Sunday. The question is now whether this denominalization should be continued on the other six days of the week. Should each brand of Christian have not only its own church but also its own set of Christian schools? And should have its own unique Christian political party? And should such denominalization of everyday life further extend to such institutions as associations for Christian businessmen and for Christian farmers? This is more or less what was done in the Netherlands, and what it meant in practice was a form of separatism in which Christians separated not only from the wicked world but also from other Christians with whom they did not agree and with whom they could not be joined at the Lord's table on Sunday.

When did it start?

When we ponder the question when it all got started, we need to make a distinction between the term "verzuiling," which has a fairly strict meaning, and the general idea of social and cultural separation, of which verzuiling is a refinement. I suppose it could be argued that the Protestant Reformation represented the first major step in the direction of verzuiling. In Germany it meant that the ecclesiastical and theological affiliation of the prince or ruler in a local territory determined the church membership of the people who lived in that territory -- and anyone who didn't like it was welcome to move elsewhere. In the history books we read: Cuius regio eius religio, that is: Whose rule, his religion. The entire district or local "state" would be either Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Calvinist. But in time a more refined form of verzuiling became feasible.

The precise origin of the term is not clear to me. I have heard accounts to the effect that it was already being used in 1915. Others will tell you that the term basically came into circulation around the second world war, and that there was a quasi-official reaffirmation of verzuiling after the war. During the war, a time in which there was a lively resistance to Nazi rule that brought together people from communities that had been separated by the verzuiling partitions, many people came to think that maybe this business of verzuiling should be scrapped. There was talk of a "doorbraak" (breakthrough) movement. But when the dust settled after the war, it didn't happen. Herman Dooyeweerd was among those who argued against getting rid of it: see his book Vernieuwing en bezinning. [NOTE dooyeweerd33] During this era Simon Jan Ridderbos (1914-1998) observed: "People seem to have forgotten that Kuyper's doctrine of the antithesis was not the fruit of wisdom from the study but found its roots in hard practice and had proven its correctness in the still harder reality of German terror." [NOTE ridderbos33]

In short, attitudes toward verzuiling have changed. But when I look back to the days of my reformational youth, I believe Anthony Bailey's informal explanation of how verzuiling works (or worked in those days) is about right. Bailey explained:

Both the Calvinists and Roman Catholics have insisted that education have a religious framework. Groups of farmers and political parties, like the Socialists, have made their own particular demands and formed their own identities. The result is a country which may at first seem comprehensively Dutch, through and through, but which will split open into half a dozen major fragments, each of which will in turn flake off into many parts. The Dutch word for this separateness within their society is verzuiling. Zuilen are pillars or columns, and verzuiling means the state of being in columns, or pillarization ....

Now, Bailey does use some strong terms here, even though they are drawn from our everyday vocabulary: "fragments," "separateness." How many such "fragments" would there be? Because the system of separation was not carried through as strictly as it might have been (some mixing between closely related groups did take place), it is not easy to come up with a count. Bailey writes:

One breakdown of this condition would show three main columns: Catholic, Protestant, and "Liberal-Humanist." A further diagnosis would reveal over twenty political parties and eighty religious denominations and countless groups. There are five or six hundred different associations in the northeast polder alone -- associations for playing football, listening to records, talking about farm problems. [NOTE bailey44]

Strength in isolation

It would not be hard to lampoon verzuiling. Geert Mak, writing about the life which he and his siblings led as the offspring of a minister in what North Americans might regard as a "Reformed ghetto," tell us:

We who lived on the Westersingel [TP: the name of the street] read mainly Reformed newspapers. Hans and I attended a Reformed school with Reformed teachers. Tineke and Cas studied at a Reformed university. The man who sold us vegetables was Reformed. The grocer was Reformed. Our bread was Reformed. The boy scout club was Reformed. My parents voted for Reformed political parties. The whole world was Reformed -- even the fences around our houses and the leaves on the trees. [NOTE mak33]

Of course there are people who don't like the term "verzuiling." It has a somewhat sterile, sociological ring to it, and it doesn't translate well. Moreover, to say of people that they live in antiseptic circumstances for which sterile descriptive terminology seems appropriate is hardly to strike a generous note: one gets the impression that the people in question are being denigrated. Such lingo therefore reduces the glory of the reformational movement, almost giving it an Anabaptist and separatist flavor.

Even so, in Dutch reformational circles the term is still used fondly -- by some, at least. There's something almost gezellig (cozy, snug -- it's another of those words that are hard to translate precisely) about living in your little fortress. On a Dutch website that refers to itself as "Refoweb," I found someone making this point while seeming to criticize people for being at ease in Zion, as it were. This author, named Maja de Bij, told the world (remember that the newer technologies allow the whole planet to eavesdrop on your cozy little conversations):

... not mixing with those who think otherwise, if you like: keeping yourself unspotted from the world -- it's one of the characteristics of the reformational pillar (refozuil). Refo-strength lies in its isolation.
This passage is worth reading in Dutch, if you are able:
... het zich niet vermengen met andersdenkenden, zo je wilt: jezelf onbesmet bewaren van de wereld, behoort tot een van de kenmerken van de refozuil. De refo-kracht ligt in haar isolatie. [NOTE refozuil33]

Some Dutch observers will tell you that verzuiling is also for philosophers -- not just farmers. Ronald van Raak writes that the practice of philosophy in the Netherlands in the first decades of the twentieth century also took on "... a verzuild (pillarized) character because thinkers representing various philosophical streams organized themselves in associations of their own." [NOTE vanraak33] One of them, of course, was the Association for Calvinistic Philosophy, over which Vollenhoven presided.

Grand Rapids debates

During my undergraduate days, there were debates about verzuiling in Grand Rapids. More specifically, the debates revolved around the question whether "separate Christian organizations" were necessary or mandatory. These (informal) debates took place between Runner and some of the Calvin professors who seemed to us as young reformationals to be crass pragmatists with no sense of principle. [NOTE daling33] ("Principial" was one of our favorite words.) But in later years I came to see more value in some of the arguments against verzuiling.

For example, since I hailed from western Canada, I did have some sense of how vast and lonely the prairies can be. When the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 as a merger of churches drawn from the Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian traditions, verzuiling was an important issue in the background. Many a lonely prairie town of modest population maintained Protestant churches of two of perhaps all three stripes. In such a town there might hardly be enough worshippers to allow one church to thrive, and so it would often occur to people that if the churches could just overcome their denominational differences and get together, the Christian cause would be more vigorously represented. Well, it finally happened. The emergence of the United Church of Canada therefore has a bearing on verzuiling. (Of course the fact that this denomination hardly has a glorious history may be taken by some as an argument against any "ontzuiling" or effort to dismantle the verzuiling system.) In any event, Runner's critics were inclined to argue that although verzuiling might be feasible in a tiny country like the Netherlands where people of the same denominational persuasion could easily get together and make common cause and so forth, it made no sense for the vast expanses of North America.

And then there was technology to be considered. The 1960s and 1970s was also the era in which the enigmatic prophet and guru Marshall McLuhan flourished. McLuhan injected some interesting phrases into our consciousness, including the notion of humankind as now living in what he called a "global village." Part of what he meant is that technology was gradually binding us all together, however much we might wish to keep apart from one another. Thanks to the internet, cartoons in a Danish newspaper are now the business of people in the Middle East. Because the internet is a massive presence in our lives today and a tool that is heavily used on a daily basis, it is harder than it once was to guard one's documents from the snooping eyes of people in other religious communities. We have all lost a degree of privacy. Therefore technology will demand some further attention a little later in this essay.

Of course there were also situations in North America where something like verzuiling (even if the term was not used) already flourished. A good example is the community of the deaf, about whom there is considerable debate. (Should they be encouraged to live apart, relying heavily on sign language, or should they be placed under pressure to "oralize" as much as possible?) Lou Ann Walker, who is the hearing child of deaf parents and therefore can move between the two worlds, gives us the following interesting account of verzuiling-without-the-term among the deaf:

The deaf world is a microcosm of hearing society. There are deaf social clubs, national magazines, local newspapers, fraternal organizations, insurance companies, athletic competitions, colleges, beauty pageants, theater groups, even deaf street gangs. The deaf world has its own heroes, and its own humor, some of which relies on visual puns made in sign language, and much of which is quite corny. Because deafness is a disability that cuts across all races and social backgrounds, the deaf world is incredibly heterogeneous. Still, deafness seems to take precedence over almost everything else in a person's life. A deaf person raised Catholic will more likely attend a Baptist deaf service than a hearing mass. [NOTE walker33]

I have a dream ...

The account of verzuiling I have offered thus far is somewhat one-sided. I think I can illustrate its one-sidedness by pointing to what we might call a verzuiling dream that was articulated many years ago by "the other Olthuis," namely, John (brother of James, as in the Bible), who used to serve as the Executive Director of the AACS (which established the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto). John Olthuis looked ahead to a day in which many of the verzuiling hopes and ideals would be wondrously implemented in North America:

I find myself hurrying along to catch the opening of Parliament in Ottawa. The Christian political party is now the official opposition .... As I rush along Elgin Street I pass a church building and note with thankfulness that the sign reads ELGIN CONGREGATION OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST, eloquent witness to the recent formation of one world-wide Christian institutional church -- a world-wide, joyful, dynamic, worshipping church -- a church which seeks the coming of the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of the institutional church. In the Parliamentary galleries I meet the head of the Christian Labor Association of North America, the international association of Christ-believing workers. I leave the gallery and pick up a copy of Voice, the Christian daily newspaper .... The first paragraph of the lead story reads: "Bill 7777 establishes financial equality in education for all school systems." I stroll along Bank Street toward the newsstand to pick up a copy of Meaning .... As I reach for my copy of Meaning I see a member of the staff of the Christian Family Counseling Service, now supported by government finances, and the head of the Christian Probation Services, engaged in a lively conversation. ... I rush down the street past the bookstore and notice that Light Publishing Foundation, the world-wide reformational press, has come up with a new series of Christian novels. I bump into one of the members of the Institute for Christian Curriculum Studies. I mumble my apologies and rush on only to be engulfed by a horde of students buzzing excitedly on their way to the campus of Ottawa's Christian University. ... I take a deep, clean breath. My heart is full of joy, for America is a good place to live, a free place, free for all people to live out of their convictions.

What is significant about this verzuiling dream is that John Olthuis does not present verzuiling as a way to keep the reformationals separate and apart from others in Canada who might contaminate them simply through interaction. The old system of separate Christian organization was for him a way to achieve something grand and glorious, a way to work out the Christian mission in the world. And it went beyond the elaboration of intellectual constructs, of theories that describe the world while leaving it essentially unchanged. Olthuis insisted:

Munitions are harmless unless they explode. Ideas are impotent unless they are communicated. While idea arsenals are being stocked, it is critical that a network for communication and expression of ideas be established. Good news for modern man must be shouted from mountain tops and street corners, on stage and screen, radio and television, in magazines and books. The humanist monopoly of the major media for proclaiming their vision of death must be broken. We need a weekly Christian news magazine, a Christian daily newspaper, Christian movie makers, Christian art groups, Christian writers, singers and dancers, Christian television and radio networks. In short, the Christian community requires a world-wide network so that the good news that is Jesus Christ comes home to every man and every nation in every area of life in every way. [NOTE olthuis33]

A worldwide mission

Although Evan Runner eventually developed significant disagreements with the Olthuis brothers and some of the other leading reformationals stationed in Toronto, he shared the breadth of vision articulated in this verzuiling dream. Therefore, at the risk of restating the obvious, I feel compelled to emphasize that although Runner might wear an extra wristwatch just for keeping track of the time in Amsterdam and might be known to speak Dutch on any and every possible occasion, his horizon of spiritual and cultural concern embraced the entire world. Indeed, one of my strong undergraduate impressions is that Runner was the most broad-minded of all of my professors in terms of his understanding of the Christian mission to the world.

Back in those days, I could not help but notice that the curriculum had a strong Western focus. It seemed as though the Western European mind and culture were pretty much the sum and substance of what we needed to know. Now, it must be admitted that Runner did not himself teach courses in Asian philosophy or Arabic or Islamic civilization, but he pointed constantly to the importance of such matters and expressed genuine regard and respect for those civilizations. They were not to be taken lightly; neither would a superficial presentation of the gospel along the lines of certain steps one must take in order to be saved suffice.

I was not the only one who heard Runner's message on score. One of my friends and classmates and fellow Groen Clubbers was Richard Van Houten, who majored in mathematics. He and I graduated in the same year. Richard (a US citizen) then went into the military and served for a couple of years in Vietnam as an interpreter. During his time in the armed services he decided to take up Runner's challenge by devoting his formidable intellect and life's energies to Chinese studies. By the time his last year in the military was underway, I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Toronto. I acted as his agent in getting him admitted to the university for some supplementary undergraduate studies in the Chinese language. He then went on to complete a doctorate in Chinese language and civilization at the University of British Columbia. But to my great disappointment, he was not appointed at Calvin College or at one of our other institutions to carry out the Runner mission in terms of extending the reformational understanding of things to Far Eastern civilization. Remember that Runner, in his youth, had wanted to be a missionary to China. And as a man who loved languages and excelled in them, he understood full well that to work effectively in such a field, one must be master of the language.

In my own very modest and limited way, I also tried to address the challenge that Richard Van Houten took on more directly. When I started teaching at Redeemer in 1982, aware that I would be responsible for the philosophy department for a couple of decades to come, I decided that we badly needed a course in Asian philosophy. Now, I had received no training whatsoever in this field during all my years of study. And so I went back to school (accompanied by my brother Rick, mentioned above) and began some study of Asian philosophy at McMaster University. On the basis of what I learned there and considerable self-study, I developed a course in Asian philosophy which I have taught with reasonable success for many years at Redeemer. Each time I teach the course, I mention Runner as the one who inspired me in this field, and I apologize for the fact that I have not formally studied Sanskrit or Chinese or any of the other languages that are germane to Asian civilization.

And so it should not be said that Runner and his spiritual sons are focused exclusively on the Western mind or on Europe or on the Netherlands or on Amsterdam. There is still a much wider mission to the world. I am reminded of the text in Zechariah about the "ten men from the nations of every tongue" who take hold of the robe of a Jew and follow him because they have heard that God is with him (see Zechariah 8:23). Just as we must take hold of the robe of the Jew mentioned in this prophecy and follow him to Jerusalem, it seemed that we needed to take hold of some Dutchman's jacket so that he could lead us to Amsterdam.

The danger of assimilation

Runner was much misunderstood by his contemporaries on the Calvin College campus. Some made fun of him as essentially small-minded and antiquarian in his outlook. But the reformational movement and vision in North American cannot be understood apart from Runner's passionate concern for other parts of the world, especially those that had only begun to grapple with the Gospel in recent centuries. And so I am convinced that Runner's commitment to something like verzuiling as the way to go in the North American context was grounded in a much larger vision.

This is also how Bernard Zylstra assessed the situation. And so he wrote in his introduction to a later edition of one of Runner's books:

Runner, as an "outsider," had received very little positive reaction to his call for a change of direction among the leaders in the Christian Reformed Church in the United States or among his colleagues at Calvin College. When approximately forty thousand Dutch Calvinists settled in Canada in the decade after 1947, Runner knew that they would be quickly absorbed as an ethnic group into the North American way of life -- history had shown that numerous times before -- unless an all-out effort were made to sensitize these immigrants to the fundamental differences in the spiritual foundations in Dutch society and Canadian society. [NOTE zylstra44]

I am convinced that the verzuiling emphasis cannot properly be understood in "sheep-dog" terms. There was more to it than Runner trying to keep those Kuyperian immigrants in Canada together as they considered what to do next in the new land. Earlier in the series I indicated that there is a purist and perfectionist strain running through the reformational movement. I believe we see evidence of its influence at work here as well.

A dark forest

Still, to understand its working properly, we must relate it to the term "antithesis." Here we are venturing into a rather dark forest. James Bratt has characterized Kuyper's doctrine of the antithesis as having a "darker side" and has warned that there are few doctrines that can match the antithesis in terms of their ability to foster spiritual arrogance. [NOTE bratt33] J. Glenn Friesen sounds a warning as well:

The neo-Calvinism of both Kuyper and Dooyeweerd has often been assumed to mean a polemical us-against-them division between those who have chosen their direction towards God and those whose thought is apostate. This can certainly be found in Kuyper .... [NOTE friesen44]

Friesen offers us a gentler reading of Dooyeweerd than some other interpreters do. He stresses the common-grace side of Dooyeweerd's thinking and especially the point that the antithesis runs through the heart of everyone:

Dooyeweerd's own view was that antithesis runs through each of our own hearts. Vollenhoven thought that Dooyeweerd was too soft on antithesis.
[NOTE friesen55]

In the New Critique, Dooyeweerd explained that Kuyper's idea of the religious antithesis in life and thought must be understood in a "universal sense." He then added that many Christians failed to understand "... that this antithesis does not draw a line of personal classification but a line of division according to fundamental principles in the world, a line of division which passes transversely through the existence of every Christian personality." [NOTE dooyeweerd44] Indeed, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. However, it is one thing to admit this on a theoretical level, but quite another to be guided by this realization when engaged in a heated dispute.

A climate of suspicion

In my own experience, the antithetical emphasis of many reformationals, including some who consider themselves strong Dooyeweerdians, can easily lead to a climate of suspicion. One of the buzzwords of such Dooyeweerdians is "integral." Dooyeweerd's philosophy is then said to be integral, whereas other offerings in the field of Christian philosophy have something "compromised" about them -- they are examples of "synthesis." One is then left with the impression that they are not to be taken seriously. And so we are told that we must push forward to achieve full, integral, Christian scholarship in philosophy and the sciences.

Some years ago, when Elaine Botha was in charge of Redeemer's academic program as Vice President Academic, she naturally did her best to ensure the Christian character of the instruction. One of her initiatives that I remember well involved a challenge to us as faculty on this very point. We were supposed to demonstrate in writing the integrally Christian character of what we were teaching. Botha thought we should not be at ease in Zion, so to speak; rather, we should check up on ourselves and one another. Her idea was akin to zero-based budgeting: prove that your course is integrally Christian in content, just as you may be asked to justify your supplies budget for the coming fiscal year without making reference to the budget and expenditure levels of years past.

Now, it seemed to me that she had things backward; in effect she was asking us to prove that we were innocent of deviation. And so I responded with a suggestion that amounted to a proposal for an affidavit system that would allow us to be innocent unless proven guilty. What I proposed is that Redeemer professors should promise to do their teaching in accordance with whatever basis statements and creedal bindings the school might ask of all faculty. If need be, such affirmations could be made on an annual basis; something of this sort is done at Wheaton College in Illinois. I believed that a requirement to the effect that a professor must prove his innocence would leave some professors feeling uncertain of their standing and would make them suspicious of the administration, and therefore would render them less cooperative than they might otherwise have been.

It is significant that in those years I also advanced a proposal to have Redeemer professors "sworn in," so to speak, when they began their teaching. My proposal did not attract support: people generally thought that the signing of the teaching contract sufficed. I even wrote about the issue in Myodicy. However, some years later sentiment had changed at Redeemer; I revived my proposal, and it was implemented.

In the essay I wrote on the subject I drew a comparison with marriage. I think it is healthier for a bride and groom to promise each other fidelity at the beginning of a marriage and then to trust one another than for them to have to prove to each other that within the past year, let's say, they have indeed been faithful. (How would you go about proving that you have not slipped off to a motel with someone, or -- switching to the professor role -- that you have never uttered some anti-Christian sentiments in one of your lectures?) In any event, the point should be clear by now: an atmosphere of suspicion that generates tensions is often to be found in reformational institutions. I will have more to say about this matter later in this series.

The ultimate antithesis

In virtually any sound theological system that can claim the title Christian, the ultimate antithesis is between Christ and Satan, and secondarily between those who are of Christ and those who are of Satan. But is this antithesis absolute? One might be inclined to respond rhetorically by asking whether the gulf between heaven and hell is absolute. Many Christians think it is, but there is an intriguing passage of Scripture in which we get a hint to the contrary. A rich man, finding himself in Hades, seems somehow able to observe the condition of those in heaven, including Lazarus, who was the poor man on his doorstep to whom he had shown no kindness or generosity (see Luke 16:19-31). Whether one may draw significant doctrinal conclusions from this passage, which occurs within a parable, is a disputed point among theologians.

Our conceptions of heaven and hell and the ultimate destinies of people here on earth have been greatly influenced by the writings of the Italian poet Dante (1265-1321). And while Dante's Divine Comedy is by no means inspired Scripture, it includes what amounts to a geography of heaven and hell as related to our earth. We are left with the impression that the gulf between them does not seem as radical as some later theologians and preachers would have us think.

My thoughts also turn to Augustine (354-430), whose magnificent treatise The City of God has set its stamp upon the thinking of people in the Calvinist tradition for centuries. Augustine brings the antithesis down to earth. But commentators differ on just how deep or radical the gulf is between the city of God and the city of man.

From all of this I draw the conclusion that the doctrine of antithesis needs to be balanced by some other doctrine or emphasis (the usual candidate is "common grace"). When taken all by itself, the doctrine of the antithesis can send us into a blind alley. We must never forget God's promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." [(Genesis 12:3]

Two kinds of science

James Bratt warned that Kuyper's doctrine of the antithesis, which he emphasized especially in the first part of his career, could lead to spiritual arrogance. But Kuyper was also a man of politics and public affairs; he knew how to make common cause with people who differed with him on certain matters. Yet, when he retired to his study and considered matters in abstract, theoretical terms (he was also a professor), he could come to some stark conclusions.

One of the strangely stark ideas he came up with was his doctrine to the effect that there are "two kinds of science." In his book on Kuyper's idea of a Christian culture, A.A. Van Ruler (1908-70) speaks of Kuyper's "remarkably extreme position" (vrij extreem standpunt) on this matter. His source is what Kuyper wrote in his Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology. [NOTE vanruler33] The claim that there are ultimately two -- and only two -- kinds of science was rooted in the affirmation that there are only two kinds of people on earth: the regenerated (with genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ in their hearts) and those who are not regenerated. It seemed to Kuyper that these two kinds of people would necessarily have to come up with two entirely separate and distinct ways of analyzing reality in the kinds of abstract terms that we would call scientific. And this conclusion was not limited to the "hard sciences." The Dutch term used by Kuyper (wetenschap) is even broader than our English term "science." And so Kuyper was talking about a whole range of scholarly disciplines.

To understand Kuyper on this point, it is necessary to realize that he was fascinated by the emphasis on the "organic" (as opposed to the "mechanical"). He explained: "In every expression of his personality, as well as in the acquisition of scientific conviction, every man starts out from faith." Science was for Kuyper thoroughly organic -- "all of one piece," as we often say in North American reformational circles. Therefore belief cannot not help but put its stamp on everything a person does, and it seems to be the same way with unbelief. And so we are left with two bodies of knowledge, which are rooted respectively in belief and its opposite. They face one another like opposing armies on a battlefield. Wrote Kuyper:

These two streams of science ... which run in separate river-beds, do not in the least destroy the principle of the unity of science. This cannot be done; it is absolutely inconceivable. We only affirm that formally both groups perform scientific labor, and that they recognize each other's scientific character, in the same way in which two armies facing each other are mutually able to appreciate military honor and military worth. But when they have arrived at their result they cannot conceal the fact that in many respects these results are contrary to each other, and are entirely different; and as far as this is the case, each group naturally contradicts what the other group asserts.

Yet only a handful of pages later, Kuyper seems to qualify his thesis somewhat:

If palingenesis [TP: regeneration] operated immediately from the centrum of our inner life to the outermost circumference of our being and consciousness, the antithesis between the science which lives by it and that which denies it, would be at once absolute in every subject. But such is not the case. [NOTE kuyper33]

Van Ruler sees a trace of Gnosticism here. [NOTE vanruler44] S.U. Zuidema (1906-75), who devotes 54 pages to untangling Kuyper's complex thoughts concerning common grace, also admits to a "gnostic remnant" in Kuyper. Zuidema's essay offers a robust defense against Van Ruler's criticism of Kuyper, and so Zuidema insists that the Gnostic tendency does not get the upper hand. The problem, as he sees it, is that Kuyper

... had begun by defining too narrowly the purpose of particular grace and the scope of its operation. This narrow definition could have driven him into Gnostic and Anabaptistic waters if he had not also posited the pole of common grace next to the pole of particular grace. [NOTE zuidema33]

This weakness in Kuyper has also been noted by later commentators. Jacob Klapwijk regards the "common grace" theme in Kuyper as somewhat unanchored. He complains:

But Kuyper has not stressed nearly enough that all this is done for the sake of Christ. ... His common grace doctrine is not Christocentric enough, that is, not sufficiently based on particular grace. [NOTE klapwijk33]

Yet it should be noted that Kuyper retreats somewhat from the most extreme formulation of his position by admitting that there is some common ground. He informs us that observation, which is not part of science in the strict sense, is common to the two groups:

The entire domain of the more primary observation, which limits itself to weights, measures and numbers, is common to both. The entire empiric investigation of the things that are perceptible to our senses (simple or reinforced) has nothing to do with the radical difference which separates the two groups.

Kuyper even allows this common ground to penetrate the experiential domain that underlies our work in the cultural sciences or the humanities (what Germans call the Geisteswissenschaften). Kuyper assures us: "Not only in the natural, but in the spiritual sciences also, a common realm presents itself." In this common realm, "... the difference between view- and starting-point does not enforce itself."

Yet Kuyper is alert to the danger of perfectionism, and so he warns against "false subjectivism" and argues that "... palingenesis does not absolutely remove the after-workings of unregenerated nature." He therefore cautions us not to expect too much unity and uniformity within the camp of Christian scholarship: "Let no one think, therefore, that Christian science, if we may so call the science which takes palingenesis as its point of departure, will all at once lead its investigators to entirely like and harmonious results." [NOTE kuyper44]

Normalism and Abnormalism

The uncertainty reflected in these quotations is telling. Now, it happens that Kuyper has a second version of his "two kinds of science" doctrine," although he does not apply this label to it. I am thinking of what he writes about "Normalism" and "Abnormalism" in Calvinism, the work that is also referred to as the "Stone Lectures" (delivered at Princeton University in 1898).

Kuyper's position with regard to Normalism and Abnormalism does not depend heavily on his notion of the "organic." The type of thinker Kuyper characterizes as the Normalist "... is unconscious of a break and clings accordingly to the normal; the other has an experience both of a break and of a change, and thus possesses in his consciousness the knowledge of the abnormal." The difference between the two positions is vast, according to Kuyper:

The normal and the abnormal are two absolutely different starting-points, which have nothing in common in their origin. Parallel lines never intersect. You have to choose either the one or the other. But whatever you may choose, whatever you are as a scientific man, you have to be it consistently, not only in the faculty of theology, but in all faculties; in your entire world- and life-view .... [NOTE kuyper55]

The terminology of "Normalism" and "Abnormalism" did not catch on, but the underlying idea certainly did. Indeed, this second, non-perfectionistic version of Kuyper's notion that there are -- and must be -- two kinds of science and scholarship in the world is worked out in the philosophy of education held in common by countless instructors in Reformed and other Christian colleges and universities around North America. To accept "creation, fall and redemption" as the basic framework for one's thinking is to be what Kuyper called an Abnormalist. This approach does not have the same extreme conclusions trailing in its wake as the palingenesis version.

Institutionalized Christianity

The antithesis doctrine gave great spiritual impetus to verzuiling. But it was not Kuyper's long-term objective to keep his people living in isolation: his thinking was far too grand to rest content with such a limited objective. Society needed to be Christianized, but this was no easy task. Yet there were definite accomplishments. The gains that had been made needed to be solidified so that the successes of one generation would not slip out of the grasp of the next.

The system of verzuiling for which Kuyper gets so much credit was intended to solve this problem, for it even got the government into the business of encouraging Christian organizations and institutions by offering considerable financial support. One of the major goals of Kuyper and his followers was to see the Christian schools placed on a footing of financial equality with the public schools, and that goal was indeed achieved in the year 1920. But as we have seen above, people came to question whether such a thing as genuine Christianization was ever truly possible.

We who live about a hundred years after the days of Kuyper often look back on his effort with a degree of disdain. Perhaps some of our criticism is too easily offered with the benefit of hindsight; I acknowledge I have been guilty of this error myself. Be that as it may, I am among those whose are known to say on occasion that the thinking of Kierkegaard (1813-55) represents a valuable antidote to certain excesses of neo-Calvinism. Kierkegaard, whose great opponent was Hegel, was very concerned about the dangers connected with any attempt to get Christian faith and inwardness to take official or institutional form.

I have observed that reformationals, by and large, are not fans of Kierkegaard, but there are exceptions. One is Craig Bartholomew, who is very partial to Kierkegaard and features his work heavily in certain courses. In this regard, Bartholomew must be recognized as something of a critic and revisionist within the reformational movement.

I think it is fair to say that what was not properly foreseen by Kuyper and his associates was the possibility that a nation that had been so heavily Christianized to the point that its Christianity became official in the form of many institutional expressions might eventually rot from within, with its Christian character coming to resemble wallpaper. Sad to say, some such thing seems to have happened.

I recall an occasion a number of years ago when a friend of mine who had gone to the Netherlands to study for a doctorate reported to me on his experiences there. I said to him that he must have been very sorry to leave, for I assumed that Dutch Calvinists love to live in the Netherlands and breathe the sacred air. He shook his head and said that he and his wife were glad to get out, for they had lived across the street from a Christian art school -- and you know what students are like, carousing till all hours. I responded by asking how it was that students in a Christian art school should be guilty of such unneighborly behavior. His response: Well, you know how it is in the Netherlands .... everything is called Christian over there. A sad observation, indeed, but a conclusion that many have reluctantly drawn. And they are inclined to point the finger at Kuyper.

Two kinds of music?

"Two kinds of science" is nevertheless an intriguing idea. Even though I can't endorse it because of its implicit perfectionism (just for the record, I do endorse creation, fall and redemption as a framework for Christian scholarship), I find myself playing with it in my mind. And in the quotations from Kuyper above, it is clear that he did not mean to restrict this manifestation of the antithesis to the purely theoretical domain. And so the mind is inclined to play with other possibilities.

Could it be that there are only two kinds of music? Kuyper does not seem to be of one mind on this question. [NOTE music33] In my own reflection on this matter, I am led to emphasize that much music is performed not in a solo setting but in groups and ensembles and entire bands and orchestras. And so the "mixed multitude" factor (see Exodus 12:38) comes into the picture. Also complicating things is the fact that music-making includes both composing and performing. Composing is something that an individual can do, and so it lends itself more to "perfectionism" in a spiritual sense. But the work of science in our time, involving as it does a great deal of teamwork, could well be compared to music in this regard. Indeed, I use such an analogy in some of my lectures.

Another possible application of Kuyper's "two kinds" theme would be the notion of "two kinds of marriage." One would be marriage based on a Christian understanding of things and the other would be a marriage for unbelievers. In considering this notion, bear in mind that the Christian tradition has always recognized the validity of marriages contracted between two people who do not believe, and therefore it has also addressed the issue of what happens when one party to such a marriage becomes a believer while the other does not. Of course it has also stressed that there should be no "mixed marriage" between a believer and an unbeliever.

The so-called "covenant marriage" possibility that has been developed in the United States and made official in the state of Louisiana also comes to mind here, but it should be noted that although a covenant marriage is intended to have a generally religious foundation, there is no strictly religious requirement. [NOTE covenantmarriage33] Hence the Louisiana innovation is not intended to be a strict parallel to Kuyper's idea of "two kinds of science." Whether a strict parallel exists somewhere or other I do not know -- perhaps it does.

Two kinds of philosophy?

The "two kinds" notion should not be passed over too quickly in an historical treatment of the reformational movement, for its implicit radicalism appeals deeply to Christians caught up in the dynamic of living in the conviction that we reformationals have a breath-taking calling in this world. There is not a moment to lose! The reformational movement was about excitement -- the kind of excitement that Evan Runner could generate. Therefore it should not surprise us that the "two kinds" approach also got applied to philosophy -- indeed, to thought in general. The thinker who took this step was Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), who was Runner's teacher during the 1930s, before he went to the Netherlands to study further under Schilder and later under Vollenhoven. Van Til writes:

... I have constantly maintained that there are basically only two philosophies of life. One of these views is that which is based on the triune God of Scripture as the final reference point for all predication. This is my position. The other is that which assumes that man, fallen and apostate man, is the final reference point in predication. This is the position which I oppose. [NOTE vantil33]

It is widely acknowledged that although Van Til was part of the Philosophia Reformata community (like Stoker, he served on the editorial board as one of the "redactieleden"), he had significant differences with Dooyeweerd, although he was more appreciative of Vollenhoven, for he was drawn especially by the latter's insistence on a unique "Christian logic." Van Til's position and his differences with Dooyeweerd in particular are part of the story I am trying to tell. I will come back to Van Til and his tradition in future essays.

Where are we headed?

This series is trying to answer the question: Whatever happened to the reformational movement? In the first essay I argued that we lack clarity on this point because historical consciousness is not well developed among reformationals. In short, they did not keep careful track of their own history. In the second essay I explored the contribution which reformationals have made to church life and discussed their preferences and practices in relation to corporate public worship. I acknowledged that the movement does not have a church base and indicated why it cannot simply become a church. Although the Christian Reformed denomination in North America enrolls many more reformationals among its members than any other denomination, it cannot be regarded as an embodiment of reformational ideals in their application to church life; indeed, most Christian Reformed people have little sense of what the reformational movement originally stood for, even if the name Kuyper does ring a bell. Nowadays reformationals are to be found in quite a number of denominations. It's as though the movement splits up every Sunday and re-assembles on Monday (just what Benne Holwerda and Klaas Schilder were not willing to do).

In this third essay in the series I am exploring the possibility that verzuiling is the key to reformational identity. During my own early days in the reformational movement, the ideal of concerted action on behalf of Christ in this world was definitely articulated in verzuiling terms, even if the word itself was little used. We were convinced that Christians need to form what we used to call "power organizations" -- not just for their own benefit but so that all the families of the earth (see Genesis 12:3) might be blessed as well.

Now, a wristwatch set to Amsterdam time might serve as an apt symbol for a reformational commitment to verzuiling (nowadays an Abraham Kuyper T-shirt might be preferred), but verzuiling also brought with it certain problems. In its starkest form (two kinds of science and two kinds of just about everything else), not even Kuyper could hold to it for long, and so he came forth with a gentler doctrine ("Normalism" versus "Abnormalism") which, under different terminology, won wide acceptance. But the gentler doctrine did not serve to set off the reformationals from the non-reformationals to any great extent.

Since Kuyper and Runner and other leading reformationals had no intention of hiding their light under a bushel but were instead looking for a way to mobilize God's people so that they could tackle the challenge of Christianizing their society in an effective manner, it is time to consider just what is meant -- theologically and philosophically speaking -- by making society and culture Christian. A little later I will return to the theme of "antithesis" and how this doctrine has been misused.

What does "Christian" mean?

Are frogs Christian? Perhaps some of them? How about sonatas? Could an epistemology be Christian? It might sound a bit dualistic, but one is inclined to ask whether we are grounding our use of the term "Christian" in creation or in redemption. Kuyper struggled to extricate himself from dualisms as he addressed the question of a Christian culture and its relation to common and particular grace respectively. The analyses offered by Zuidema and Van Ruler are still worth studying. [NOTE zuidema44]

If we were to approach this broad question while trying to avoid technical terminology that is apt to leave laymen and amateurs behind, it might be wise to ask whether "Christian," in its application to cultural and societal entities, means the same as "divinely approved." And since God is the Creator, the question arises whether something that counts as "creational" (a favorite word of the reformationals for a long time now) must therefore be regarded as Christian. Or would we reject this possibility for fear of slipping into a dualism that separates an "order of creation" from an "order of redemption"?

Van Ruler's interaction with Kuyper is helpful here. This theologian from the "hervormd" tradition [NOTE hervormd33] is not generally regarded as one of the reformationals, even though Harry der Nederlanden is very partial to him. [NOTE dernederlanden33] Yet Van Ruler is a hero to Christian environmentalniks in the Netherlands because of his robust embrace of "creation." So "creational" and earthy and Old-Testament-oriented is Van Ruler that he is suspected of somehow shoving Christ aside. Indeed, he maintained:

... God in Christ is only there in the particular form in order to bear the guilt of sin and take it away from the life of created reality, so that the created reality may once again be restored before his face. I believe that this basic reformational intention is correctly understood only when one dares to express it in what initially seems a shocking expression, namely that God in Christ is an "emergency measure" (Notmassnahme). The incident of sin, and only the incident of sin, occasioned and made necessary the incarnation. For this reason the whole of the incarnation and all that accompanies it must be considered as incidental. [NOTE vanruler55]

Did Kuyper, despite the significant theological differences with Van Ruler of which the latter made much, do likewise? In other words, did Kuyper shove Christ aside? The answer to this question depends on whether we may read his common grace doctrine in the somewhat one-sided way which his critics have developed. (Because Kuyper wrote so much, it is almost always possible to say that a particular interpretation does not take such-and-such a writing of Kuyper's into account.) Earlier we observed that Klapwijk's maintains that Kuyper's doctrine of common grace is not sufficiently Christological.

Christian excellence

What makes this point interesting from the standpoint of the history of the reformational movement here in North America is that it has quite a bearing on the quarrel between Evan Runner and the Calvin College establishment. The rhetoric of "Christian excellence" was much in vogue during my undergraduate days, and it was often thrown at Groen Clubbers when they complained about the instruction of professors whom we considered non-Kuyperian and non-reformational. The idea being advanced by the defenders of the Calvin College mainstream was that one should not make a big show of being a Christian in this or that scholarly or cultural endeavor. One simply did one's best, and the result should then be accepted as good music or philosophy or whatever, but at the same time it would be recognizable through the eyes of faith as Christian music and Christian philosophy. One should not make a big point of its being Christian.

Now, there had in fact been quite a Kuyperian tradition at Calvin College and in the western Michigan Christian Reformed community in general before Runner arrived on the scene in 1951. At a later juncture in this series I will have more to say about the pre-Runner Kuyperians. But in relation to the line of argument I am pursuing just now, I need to point out that one line of thought running through Kuyper does come very close to the "Christian excellence" theme that we Groen Clubbers used to reject when we heard it expressed at Calvin. S.U. Zuidema articulates it for us in his analysis of Kuyper's position on common grace. He tells us that Kuyper championed

... the emancipation of culture and societal relationships -- of family, state and society, of science, labor and art -- from the tutelage of the institutional church. He has no scruples about introducing a word here that can hardly be said to appeal to many Christians, namely: "secularisatie." [TP: secularization] The terrain of the world, of common grace, is not the domain of the Kingdom of Heaven. The domain of the Kingdom of Heaven is rather the mystic realm of the "spiritual," of the "inner soul," and, further, of the new Jerusalem that will not be revealed until after the present dispensation has passed away. The domain of common grace, by contrast, is by its very nature not "Christian," it does not bear a "Christological" stamp, it does not share in the power of Christ's resurrection nor does it participate in the supernatural gift of grace. ... Rather it has an independent, secular, worldly goal. ... Common grace only operates by linking up with the creation and always relates things back to the creation. ... This means that culture can only be a secular affair. "Christian culture" is hardly something that speaks for itself. For example, a Christian architect is basically an architect, working qua architect in the sphere of common grace, with the tools of common grace; like any other architect, Christian or no Christian, he draws on nature, not Scripture, and designs according to the laws of architecture, which are common to all men.

There were no architecture professors at Calvin College while Runner was teaching there, but if there had been some, they could have used Zuidema's explication of Kuyper to ward off the sorts of attacks that many Groen Clubbers in those days made on their professors because of their failure to approach their disciplines via the verzuiling strategy that aimed at Christian distinctiveness and would allow no compromise or "synthesis," as we liked to call it. In other words, there was no more need for two kinds of architecture (according to this line of thought in Kuyper) than there would be for two kinds of marriage (a prospect touched on earlier in this essay). If Zuidema is to be believed, the Kuyper of common grace held that marriage is simply marriage:

A Christian marriage is an ordinary marriage, a Christian society is an ordinary society, a Christian family is an ordinary family, a Christian state is an ordinary state, a Christian association is an ordinary association -- according to the ordinances that obtain for marriage, family, society, state and associations. ... and even a Christian political party is just that -- an ordinary party! [NOTE zuidema55]

Such an approach to the Christianization issue was simply not acceptable to those North American reformationals who took their spiritual and intellectual inspiration primarily from Runner. And so we stuck stubbornly to the verzuiling model, which we had to surrender gradually as the decades slipped by, as things changed in the Netherlands, and as we became more broad-minded and strategic. But we did not take much time to reflect on just why our thinking had changed.

Canadian Reformed verzuiling

An historical oddity in all of this development and change is that the verzuiling model wound up flourishing most purely in circles that some had taken to be decidedly anti-Kuyperian. I am referring to the Canadian Reformed churches (the "liberated" Reformed or "vrijgemaakten") and the network of Christian organizations (mainly schools) supported by the people of those churches. Now, it is sometimes thought that Schilder must have been the great opponent of Kuyper since he was driven out of office and out of the church by a cabal in which H.H. Kuyper (1864-1945), son of Abraham himself, played a part. It is indeed true that Schilder attacked part of the Kuyperian intellectual legacy, but I think it could well be argued, as Jelle Faber would certainly do (see Essay 1 in this series), that much of Kuyper was accepted by Schilder.

If one looks at this matter historically and sociologically, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the spirit of the old Kuyperian world that loved verzuiling is most alive today in the Canadian Reformed community. Similar observations could be made about the counterpart to the Canadian Reformed community in the Netherlands (the churches called "liberated"). In her account of what became of Kuyper's people in the Netherlands, Agnes Amelink therefore uses the term "mini-zuil" (zuil = pillar) and even "mini-zuiltje" (the diminutive form) in connection with the "liberated" Reformed community in the Netherlands. [NOTE amelink33] The "mini" appellation is not just intended to reflect the fact that the "liberated" Reformed are relatively few in number: it also indicates that there was a second (but numerically smaller) wave of verzuiling that came about after the lamentable schism of 1944 in the Netherlands (with which I dealt in Essay 2 in this series). Reformed believers who had long worshipped together were now segregated not just on Sundays but also on weekday evenings as they poured their energies into various Christian causes. Freda G. Oosterhoff, an historian and educator, comments on how this second wave of verzuiling compares to the first (spearheaded by Kuyper and company):

Although it was on a much smaller scale than before, there were close resemblances. As during the first phase, divisions were drawn in practically all areas of life. In addition to their separate political party, members of the liberated churches have their own newspaper, their own socio-economic organizations, their own elementary and secondary schools, colleges, institutions of care, and so on. The striking difference with the first phase was that the lines of separation were drawn not only with respect to the world, but also with respect to other Christians. Reformed believers built dividing walls against the world and against each other.

People outside the "liberated" Reformed camp tend to blame Schilder for such developments, partly because so many of the other leaders of that period have faded from our historical consciousness. But Schilder was not an enthusiastic proponent of the second wave of verzuiling -- far from it. Oosterhoff informs us:

Before 1944 Reformed theologians, including men like K. Schilder and B. Holwerda, saw no problem whatsoever in cooperating with other Christians in a variety of areas, including politics and the schools. And as we have seen, even after 1944 Schilder believed that political cooperation with other Christians should be possible. [NOTE oosterhoff33]
But does all this verzuiling really make a perceptible difference? Did it do the "liberated" Reformed people any good? Did it make them even more Reformed than fellow believers in other denominations adhering to the same set of confessions? And were their schools distinctive? Was it worth all the energy and sacrifice to remain apart? The "liberated" wonder about these questions themselves; over the years, I have had a number of opportunities to engage them in discussion on such points.

Geert Mak, in his entertaining history of his own family and of the Netherlands in general in the twentieth century, suggests that verzuiling did bring about a perceptible difference, however minute. Mak, of course, does not have much respect for the Kuyperian world that he saw fading away in his lifetime. His book makes for both sobering and entertaining reading. [NOTE mak44]

One of his stories sticks in my mind. It seems that during part of the postwar period his father was a chaplain living near Leeuwaarden (the capital city of Friesland). Since he had no pulpit of his own, he would often accept preaching engagements here and there. Mak would sometimes accompany him. Sometimes it was tricky to find the church in a town one had never visited before. One approach was simply to follow people who appeared to be walking to church, but there was the danger that one would wind up at the wrong church. Mak's father could somehow discern whether a group of people headed to church were "Hervormd" (heading for the state church) or "vrijgemaakt" (the Schilder group) or "synodical" (whose church building he was looking for). He must have been a keen discerner of lifestyle, for he could identify the various denominations by the cut of the people's clothes or the looks on their faces! [NOTE mak55]

Has verzuiling served the Canadian Reformed community well? There has been reflection on this matter of late: worthy of note are the conclusions that were drawn by Freda Oosterhoff (who is herself Canadian Reformed) and were published in a widely-read church paper for the people in the pew to digest. Oosterhoff writes:

The result of pillarization has all too often been to protect one's own Christian group rather than to offer help to a world in need. Indeed, the fortress mentality has been so strong that one no longer knew even one's fellow-believers in other churches.

There is considerable irony here. The reason why Reformed people engage in politics is their confession that all of life belongs to Christ. A separatist, Anabaptist kind of isolationism from society is therefore out of the question; yet the history of Reformed politics in the Netherlands shows that pillarization can in practice lead to such isolationism.

Oosterhoff has long lived in Canada, and so she wanted to nudge the people over here. She added:

Although Canada does not lend itself to the type of pillarization that existed in the Netherlands, the danger of forgetting that we are salt and light for the world confronts us as well. To the extent that they ignore this danger, Christians are indeed not only among the victims of secularization, but also among its causes. [NOTE oosterhoff44]

The new antitheticals

Among the conservative reformationals in North America I do not sense much appetite or inclination to re-establish the old verzuiling system as it once existed in the Netherlands, either by joining the Canadian Reformed or by establishing further separate organizations within the Christian Reformed subculture. Instead the inclination has been to label oneself an "antithetical" and make a point of remaining "unspotted from the world" (see James 1:27 in the KJV rendering). Among such thinkers is John Vriend, who taught education at Redeemer (not to be confused with his late uncle of the same name, who was a Christian Reformed minister for some years and also a translator).

In an analysis of approaches to Christian education (considering both curriculum and pedagogy), Vriend identifies the "antitheticals" as intellectual rivals of the "positive Calvinists." The latter are the people who, back in my Groen Club days, would have been characterized as the "common grace crowd," from whom we kept our distance, even if some of us did read their periodical, which was called the Reformed Journal. Vriend, also a Runner student, assures us that the antithetical mentality is "wholeheartedly Neo-Calvinistic and Kuyperian." A partial verzuiling may, however, be in order: "... Antithetical Christians seek their own institutions in most significant areas of human endeavour." It is curious that Vriend exempted me from membership among the antitheticals, for he had a third category called the "confessionals," of which I was the chief example, with John Bolt serving as an example of an antithetical, and Harro Van Brummelen as a positive Calvinist. [NOTE vriend33]

These antitheticals, then, are reformationals of a distinctly conservative disposition who seem to be scanning the horizon constantly, looking for things to be against. In their keenness to be "against" this and that, they are of course emulating the original spirit of Kuyper's political party, which was officially known as the "Anti-Revolutionary Party." [NOTE antirevolutionary33] Some of them wind up cozying up to the religious right and can be found championing the cause of certain controversial political leaders and movements in the United States and Canada. The old Evan Runner line to the effect that the choice between "left" and "right" in politics is a false dilemma has gradually slipped into disuse. [NOTE cooper33] We are left with the impression that Christians are to be known not so much by what they stand for but by what they are against. I am reminded of a song we used to sing as young people, which might need rewording: "And they'll know we are Christians by -- what we're against."

Many students of Evan Runner will recognize this antithetical stance as something of a deviation from the master's teachings. Runner had learned from Vollenhoven that it is important to be "thetical." (I can recall that some of my fellow undergraduates, having only a superficial acquaintance with Runner and his terminology, were puzzled by this term; they wondered whether it was good English.) There is a powerful piece of biblical wisdom behind Runner's emphasis: Satan did not come first, but God! Satan always represented the antithesis. Moreover, Runner was convinced that Satan is divided, and that genuine unity is not to be had apart from Christ:

... apostate men do not always agree on what they absolutize. This ought not to surprise us at all. Oneness of mind (or heart: concord), unity, community, peace, -- these are the fruit of God's uniting our hearts in a fellowship of faith by the POWER of His Word. Where men are not so bound, nothing is there to prevent their seizing first upon one and then upon another of the many aspects of our temporal life as being in their view the absolute origin of the other aspects. ... So it is that a great diversity of Antitheses has arisen in the course of philosophical history.

A text from the Bible comes to mind as I ponder Runner's emphasis: "... he who does not gather with me scatters." [Matthew 12:30] Runner was himself accused of being divisive, and I am not claiming that all of his actions during his colorful career as a philosophy professor had the effect of furthering the kind of unity that ought to exist among those who wish to follow Christ. But I do know that he was committed to a positive agenda. Therefore he cautioned his followers by saying:

Many of us are, I am sure, inclined to think of the Christian side of the struggle with the world of unbelief as the antithetical side. We sometimes hear the Christian position spoken of as the position of the Antithesis. That can only mean, however, that the struggle of the Kingdom of Christ is in antithetical relation to the struggle of the Kingdom of Darkness. In our thinking about the matter we must never lose sight of what is prior. The creation-order, firmly secured in the Divine Will, is the Original Truth. ... Christianity is the re-proclamation of the THESIS. God's Truth is first. The repressing and supplanting Distortion, the LIE or ANTITHESIS, came second, and on the human level, can only exist as a distortion of (thus dependent upon) the THESIS. [NOTE runner44]

It may be that the proper understanding of the term "antithesis" became somewhat confused because of the way the terms "thesis," "antithesis" and "synthesis" were used in some of Runner's publications that had originated as lectures at the Unionville Conferences. I am told that this terminology was imposed on the lectures by Runner's dear friend Glenn Andreas (1917-93) as he undertook the task of preparing the lectures for publication, and that Runner was not pleased by what Andreas had done in this regard. The philosophically schooled, of course, will recognize the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure as characteristic of Hegel's philosophy. And Runner was not one to take anything over from Hegel!

Alvin Plantinga and Christian philosophy

That certain of Runner's students gradually turned into "antitheticals" also helps to explain why they have more or less come to terms with the Calvin College establishment they once opposed. The interesting career of Alvin Plantinga comes to mind as I seek to explain the shift in attitude that has taken place. Now, it is no secret that Runner did not approve of Plantinga's philosophical position and was somewhat puzzled by his great success in the philosophical world -- and perhaps even a bit jealous. Back in my undergraduate days, when I lived in the tension between Runner and the Groen Club, on the one hand, and the "analytic philosophy" tradition of Plantinga and his close friend and associate Nicholas Wolterstorff, on the other, I was well aware that any Groen Clubber worth his salt would not join in the applause that the young Plantinga was already receiving. Moreover, it was our impression in those days that he was not much of a believer in Christian philosophy; instead, he seemed to subscribe to the "Christian excellence" line that was used around the campus to explain the Christian character of the teaching at Calvin. Just be the best analytic philosopher you can possibly be, and you will be doing what God calls you to do -- that seemed to be the recommended approach.

Now, it is widely acknowledged in reformational circles today that Alvin Plantinga has identified himself more and more openly with the cause of explicitly Christian philosophy (also acknowledging Dooyeweerd's efforts in that regard), and he is widely applauded for having done so. As I have watched his development, it seems to me that he has also turned into an "antithetical." An observation about Christian philosophy that he makes in his intellectual autobiography is interesting evidence in this regard. He writes:

When I left graduate school in 1957, there were few Christian philosophers in the United States, and even fewer Christian philosophers willing to identify themselves as such. ... Now, some thirty-five years later, things look different indeed. There are hundreds of young Christian philosophers in the United States, many of them people of great philosophical power; much first-rate work is going on in Christian or theistic philosophy and allied topics .... [NOTE plantinga33]

On the one hand, the changes pointed out in this brief quotation are to be celebrated. On the other hand, Plantinga's explanation needs to filled out somewhat, along roughly the following lines. What happened in his own mind and in the minds of a great many others whom we now count as "Christian philosophers" is that they eventually came to terms with the fact that we as Christians represent a cultural and intellectual minority in our society. Therefore pursuing excellence in some mainline fashion no longer seems enough. We're supposed to dig in our heels and refuse to accept dogmas stemming from Enlightenment rationality or (more recently) postmodernist thinking. To do so is, in effect, to become antithetical -- a bit obstreperous and difficult, refusing to be led around by the nose, intellectually speaking. And Plantinga excels at being difficult; he does not allow himself to get talked into a corner.

This conception of Christian philosophy and Christian scholarship as deviating self-consciously (and antithetically) from the mainline secular tradition that now prevails in our society also sheds some light on the question whether Thomas Aquinas can be said to be a Christian philosopher. In my Introduction to Philosophy course I tell the students that Aquinas himself and many of his followers did not think of their work in philosophy as Christian; it was just philosophy (another example of "Christian excellence"). I usually relate this point to the nature/grace separation that runs through the Roman Catholic and Thomistic tradition. I also have the students read a bit of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), an eminent neo-Thomist who, as it happens, does embrace the notion of Christian philosophy. It seems to me that Gilson has in effect made the same move that so many others have made, namely, to recognize that our society has in fact become overwhelmingly secular and has abandoned its Christian roots and moorings. Therefore one is now justified in calling philosophy in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas Christian philosophy, whereas in the days of Thomas himself it was just philosophy. Dooyeweerd, observing the same shift in Gilson, claims the change also has to do with the Augustinian strain that runs through Gilson's thought. [NOTE dooyeweerd55]

Has verzuiling been abandoned?

So where does this leave us? Have the spiritual sons and descendants of Evan Runner abandoned verzuiling, either choosing the antithetical posture or joining forces with the "positive Calvinists" from whom Runner so resolutely kept his distance? This would be too hasty a reading of the situation. My own conviction is that the verzuiling mentality gets into your blood, and that you do not overcome it so easily. There is still a formidable tendency toward separatism in the reformational movement (I make no exception for myself). Therefore it will pay us to reflect on the reformational attitude toward movements and endeavors that are much more openly separatist than the reformationals ever dared to be. And as we consider the reformational critique and rejection of some of these movements, we may even feel impelled to mutter: "Methinks the lady doth protest too much!"

The spirit of independence that made verzuiling seem like a good idea and led many of us to think along separatist lines has waned over the decades. Sometimes, as I think back to incidents in which the separatist spirit shone through, I almost come to doubt my own memories. For example, I can recall the time when the Institute for Christian Studies still resided a couple of miles from the University of Toronto at 141 Lyndhurst Avenue. In those days Hendrik Hart was known to hold forth in an independentistic spirit: we were doing our own thing at ICS, and so forth. I and some others who had close ties to the University would plead for more interaction between the Institute and the University, and Hart would respond that if the University had no idea what was going on at 141 Lyndhurst Avenue, well, that was its problem -- not ours. In later years, Hart became markedly dialogical toward the secular academic community (more on this in a subsequent essay).

The spirit of independence was also reflected in Evan Runner's insistence that much Christian college teaching was undone by the careless adoption of a secular textbook. The textbook, he explained to us as students, sets the agenda for your course and structures things. Thoroughly Christian textbook material was needed, and so Runner liked to use primary sources and, where possible, come up with something of his own, although he did not get far in this regard. But his course devoted to the history of ancient philosophy (his academic specialty) was based on his own translation of some work done in this field by Vollenhoven.

The spirit of independence was also alive in 1981 and 1982 when Redeemer was preparing to open its doors to students for the first time. One of our original professors was Harry Van Dyke, who was enchanted by the notion that we could start over and do things right. It seemed to Van Dyke that we really ought to devise some unique cataloging system for our library, a system that would be based on a sound understanding of the modal aspects as they had been analyzed and distinguished by Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven and others. Nothing came of his suggestion, of course, but I retain that discussion as one of my strong memories of what the reformational movement stood for.

Technology as a limiting factor

In all of this, I continue to see the influence of technology as a limiting factor working in the background. My thesis in this essay is that technology in general can both hinder and promote the spirit of reformational independence. Let's go back to Runner and the textbook comment for a moment. Runner would surely rejoice at today's publishing possibilities. Now that we have computers and "print on demand" publishing allowing for very small print runs, it is much more feasible than ever before for Christians to produce curricular materials of their own. Even the rise of relatively cheap photocopying and the services offered by companies like Kinkos have made a substantial difference in this regard. And then there are all the new possibilities provided by the internet and CD-roms and so forth. It appears that technology has been kind to the little guy (the Christian minority), encouraging him to do his own thing in the publishing and textbook field.

But in other respects technology has manifested itself as a powerful force pushing us toward standardization and alignment with the prevailing community. This was the conclusion we reached in connection with Van Dyke's library suggestion. Even back in 1982, librarians did not relish the prospect classifying every incoming book on their own. In those days old-fashioned library cards were still in use and were adopted by us. Moreover, one did not invent their contents out of whole cloth; instead, the information was developed at some central location and then shipped out to particular libraries as new books corresponding to the cards were acquired. In theory it would have been possible for us to do all our own cataloguing of books, developing a uniquely Christian library card for each one, but it would have been very costly in time and money. Now that libraries are so much linked electronically through internet technology, we still seem to be stuck with the old choice between the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress system. We use the latter at Redeemer.

Calvinistic separatists?

I am aware that by injecting the term "separatism" into this discussion, I am crossing a line that will bother some readers. Separatism is a touchy issue in Calvinistic circles. But the linking of the terms Calvinism and "separatism" is not original with me. In this regard, I would refer readers especially to Henry Zwaanstra's book Reformed Thought and Experience in a New World, where he divides the early Christian Reformed intellectual leaders into three cultural and theological camps, one of which is the "separatist Calvinists." As prominent examples he mentions the names of Klaas Schoolland (1851-1938), who is reasonably well known to us, [NOTE schoolland33] and also a certain John Van Lonkhuyzen, about which not much seems to be remembered. [NOTE vanlonkhuyzen33]

People who are uncomfortable with the suggestion that Calvinists can be separatists might be inclined to argue that "separatist" is a term of reproach -- something that your opponent hurls at you. Who in the world would call himself a separatist? In Canada this question is all too easy to answer. There are lots of folks in Quebec who take pride in being separatists. There is a very successful political party operating on the provincial level devoted to the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada, and there is also a federal alliance of Members of Parliament who have the same aim in mind; for a time they even served as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the federal Parliament (1993-97).

Even so someone might ask: but are they really separatists? Would they still be separatists if they got their way and managed to make of Quebec an independent country? Would they then look with favor upon efforts on the part of some aboriginal communities or perhaps English-speaking groups to secede from Quebec in order to affiliate with what was left of Canada? The answer seems to be no: Quebec is said to be "indivisible" (although Canada is not). For those folks, separatism is a temporary stance.

The upshot is that people do not generally like to be called separatists. And so those who have separatist inclinations sometimes hide them or redescribe them in such a way as to make them more palatable to their opponents. Or they might just outgrow them and join the establishment or the mainstream.

I hardly need to add that separatism in church life is also frowned on and denounced as schismatic. Schilder declared that separatism amounts to "conformity to the world." [NOTE schilder33] Even insistence on worshipping apart as a separate denominational community (instead of joining with other believers on the basis of a common confession) amounts to separatism in his eyes.

Communal living

In order to cite chapter and verse, so to speak, in my effort to demonstrate that there is indeed a separatist streak running through the reformational movement, I will point to my own younger self as an example of a reformational (and a moderate one at that!) who had definite separatist leanings. One of my vivid memories from my graduate school days is that my wife Mary and I, along with a number of our reformational friends, had gotten it into our heads that reformational Christians should engage in what we called "communal living." Looking back on that chapter of my life, I suspect that we were not terribly clear on just what would be involved; minimally, it would mean living in close proximity to those with whom we formed a communal unit, perhaps even in the same relatively large house or apartment or residential complex. Moreover, we looked with favor on actual experiments in which two married couples (neither one with children) occupied a single sizable living unit together, although the fact that a marriage sometimes broke up after such an experiment served to cool our interest substantially.

At this point in my life I believe it was misguided thinking on my part to have advocated "communal living," and I am now much too private a person to relish such a living arrangement. Still, I can clearly recall a long discussion of this matter with my father, who tried to pour some cold water on the idea as misguided youthful idealism. I also recall an evening that Mary and I spent at the home of Morris Greidanus and his wife Alice, where we discussed this matter at some length. Greidanus was at that time the Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto, in which capacity he served as a friend and older brother to many of the reformationals there (he has more recently served as interim president of the Institute of Christian Studies). I don't clearly recall just what his reaction to our proposal was, but I suspect it was a gentler and more sophisticated version of my father's efforts to put on the brakes on what seemed like a wacky idea.

How about Christian Zionism?

Additional evidence of separatist leanings in my graduate school days is an article which I originally published in the reformational periodical Vanguard, which was edited by Robert Carvill, one of my discussion partners when it came to communal living. What is remarkable about this article is not just its content but also the fact that it drew the attention of others and was twice reprinted in anthologies intended especially for study by political theory students. In this article I explored the question whether "... there is a real parallel between Zionism and what some radical Christians in North America are trying to achieve ...." I observed that assimilation into the mainstream had not worked for the Jews (the Holocaust was powerful evidence in this regard), and I doubted whether it would work for Christians either. I warned:

The balance between assimilation and separation has not been and never can be maintained for long. Some Jews who have attempted it have eventually become totally assimilated and virtually indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbours. And those who have managed to remain faithful to the Jewish religion have earned the hostility of their neighbours and have thereby wound up living the life of separation. [NOTE zionism33]

I went on to sound a warning about the bounds of tolerance, the kind of warning that breathes the spirit of the 1970s, when many of us were influenced by what was called "the New Left":

If we take Christ at his word, we must face up to the fact that antagonism -- and even hatred -- will result whenever Christians stand up honestly in the face of Humanism. As long as Christians stay within their churches, the Humanist community will probably be tolerant. But once the Christian faith is carried into public life, tolerance breaks down and is replaced by fury.

In the second-last paragraph of the article I raised the question

... whether we should follow the example of the Jewish Zionists to the point of becoming "Christian Zionists." This idea has arisen in a number of minds, and is already being discussed in guarded terms. What the ultimate answer to this question might be will depend heavily on events in North America over the next decade or two. If North American democracy lives up to its proud boasts and grants its citizens the full range of civil and religious freedoms and rights, there will be no need for Christians to consider "Zionism." But if Christians are to be denied a place to stand, they may eventually decide -- as many persons before them have decided -- to move on, either to a more hospitable country or, perhaps, to a homeland of their own. [NOTE zionism44]

Although the anthology in which my 1973 article was reprinted came off the press in 1981 (after Ronald Reagan was elected President of the USA), the book as a whole echoes the spirit of the 1970s. My essay was preceded by a stirring piece written by Clark Pinnock (who is not generally regarded as one of the reformationals) in which one side of the reformational gospel was preached (i.e. radical action on behalf of all of humankind, so that all the families of the earth might be blessed) but without the other side that I am emphasizing in this essay (i.e. the verzuiling and separation motif). [NOTE pinnock33]

The South African separatists

My separatist inclinations even led me to some "unholy" sympathies for the Afrikaners and their notorious policy of apartheid. During the 1970s and 1980s it became fashionable for reformationals to wax indignant about the evils of the apartheid regime, which was led by our theological and ecclesiastical cousins in South Africa, who had fought off the British and gone their own way. Among them was the well-known philosopher Hendrik G. Stoker (1899-1993), a slightly younger contemporary of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, who had developed a South African counterpart to the reformational philosophy that had grown up at the Free University. [NOTE stoker33] There were various reformationals who sensed something akin to verzuiling underway in South Africa, although curiously mixed with racial policies. Perhaps they also recalled Kuyper's strong sympathies for the Boers (Afrikaners) in their war against the British, which we call the Boer War (1899-1902). As late as the 1960s, Paul Schrotenboer (1922-98), a reformational with excellent credentials, was offering a public defense of what the Afrikaner Calvinists were trying to build on the other side of the world. [NOTE schrotenboer33]

My own sentiments toward the Afrikaner Calvinists and their curious form of separatism changed gradually. By the time Nelson Mandela emerged from prison (1990) and became South Africa's new leader, most everyone had turned away from any early fascination with the apartheid system as a possible Christian alternative to some of the social and racial problems of the modern world. [NOTE apartheid33]

Even so, I distinctly recall that long before the collapse of the apartheid regime, I once watched a fascinating television documentary about South Africa, with my wife Mary seated next to me. As an Afrikaner [NOTE afrikaners33] explained the rationale for the now-hated apartheid system, we were both struck by how Kuyperian it all sounded. Now, Kuyper lovers would probably insist that although the individual words may have sounded like they could have come from Kuyper's mouth, they were being strung together in unacceptable ways. I do not have the text of the documentary before me, and so I must be guarded in what I say. Yet I am not the only one who heard echoes of Kuyper in the pro-apartheid rhetoric of the Afrikaners. According to Mark Noll, Kuyperian rhetoric "... bore evil fruit when certain Kuyperians concluded that a verzuiling (or pillarization) of race could be built upon Kuyper's principial reasoning about the sovereignty of spheres." [NOTE noll33] But in the many-sided Kuyper there are also elements to be used against the apartheid ideology, and so Lew Daly adds balance to the discussion by observing:

History reveals another side to this ideal, though. Kuyper's thought influenced Afrikaner racial nationalism and, more particularly, the Dutch Reformed Church's theology of racial separation under apartheid. Recent scholarship, it should be noted, has shown how Afrikaner theology selectively appropriated and distorted Kuyper's themes, and in fact a movement of Black Reformed Christians in South Africa has worked since the early 1980s to critically reclaim the liberative aspects Dutch Calvinism and the Kuyperian tradition. [NOTE daly33]

It is my distinct impression that South African separatism, with its inclination toward racism, has given the reformational community quite a scare when it comes to the old verzuiling dream. That's partly why we have been so eager to dissociate ourselves from the evils of apartheid: it was frighteningly close to home. Nicholas Wolterstorff has been willing to chide no less a personage than Dooyeweerd on this issue, pointing out how some of Dooyeweerd's terminology and philosophical constructions could easily be misconstrued in the service of the bad elements in the South African regime. [NOTE wolterstorff33]

As I contemplate the uneasy relationship of the reformationals to the South African developments, I'm tempted to invoke the Jungian notion of a shadow. I have the impression that when reformationals speak out very strongly against separatist groups (and I admit that some are much more vocal on this score than others), they are fighting a sort of shadow self. I believe this is also true to some extent of their attitude toward the Anabaptist community, since the Anabaptist outlook has long served as a concrete indicator of what reformationals are against. Indeed, I have sometimes thought that if the Anabaptists did not exist, we would have to invent them -- otherwise our lectures would be incomplete. And I don't think it's entirely an accident that Anabaptist-cum-postmodernist tendencies are to be seen among the people associated with the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Perhaps people are most vigorous in denouncing certain ideas just before they accept them. Are Yoder and Sider now to be numbered among the prophets?

You in your small corner ...

Earlier in this series I indicated that I have sometimes been looked upon with suspicion by reformational colleagues, including some of my friends at Redeemer. More specifically, they have wondered whether I was really one of them; perhaps I was actually an Anabaptist instead. For some years I drove a very plain-looking black car, which I jokingly referred to as an Anabaptist vehicle. Moreover, I was known to take issue with the usual critique of the Anabaptist world and its approach to questions of culture and technology. In so doing, I became a de facto defender of the Anabaptists, a posture which, in the minds of some people, may be hard to distinguish from actually being one.

There was probably some justice to the suspicions. Perhaps they go back to a Sunday-school song I was taught in childhood, a song I have never quite been able to get out of my head. It goes as follows: "Jesus bids us shine / with a pure, clear light, / like a little candle / burning in the night; / in this world of darkness / so we must shine -- / you in your small corner, / and I in mine." [NOTE smallcorner33]

My serious and (I trust) mature view on this matter is that the Anabaptists are to be respected for drawing certain counter-cultural conclusions before the rest of us. But I also acknowledge that their weakness, in general, is that they operate on the basis of the antithesis without tempering it sufficiently with some such doctrine as common grace. I also wonder whether the Anabaptists do justice to the cultural mandate.

I make these comments somewhat hesitantly, since it is all too easy to criticize a substantial tradition on the basis of statements made by some of its lesser members. And in the case of the Anabaptist world, it is not easy to find a definitive leader and spokesman of the stature of Calvin or Bavinck or Kuyper. I should also add that my comments below concern the very conservative wing of the Anabaptist movement; I am well aware that many of the Mennonites who have grown accustomed to city life hardly differ from Christians in other denominations in their attitudes to technology and Christian outreach and so forth.

Attitudes toward technology play a significant role in the assessment of the Anabaptists offered by many reformationals: the Amish and some Old-Order Mennonites (then regarded as exemplifying the heart of the larger tradition in which they stand) are often scorned as having a rather short-sighted and ill-considered position when it comes to such issues. We are led to believe that they think Satan invented electricity, and so they forgo its use. Likewise, they are so spooked by the outside world that they will not have a telephone in the house, and so forth.

Now, if one actually reads their writings and the scholarly descriptions of their communal life composed by sympathetic observers, a more nuanced view comes through. One of their claims is that Christians should not be dependent on "the world." To become hooked up to the local hydro utility (which used to be a fairly strict monopoly) is to be dependent on the world. This is not to say that one may never use electricity: many of them do. But it would be better to generate electricity on the farm, using a generator of some sort, than to depend on "the world" to supply it.

Similar practical wisdom confronts us when we ask about the telephone. It's not that using the telephone makes one a servant of Satan. But the Anabaptists are aware that the telephone (to say nothing of other modern electronic appurtenances) has become quite an intruder in the modern home. And so the practice on some Anabaptist farms has been to have a telephone box available at the point where the lane leading into the farm joins the road. If there is an emergency in the middle of the night requiring an ambulance, medical help can quickly be summoned. But such a telephone box at the end of the lane cannot be used by telemarketers to interrupt supper and family time.

Christ the transformer of culture

Related to the reformational debate over what we are to make of the Anabaptists was the preoccupation among some reformationals with the thinking of H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), who is not to be confused with Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), his older brother and a theologian of comparable status, with a very interesting theological position of his own. [NOTE niebuhrfamily33] For a time, it appeared that the younger Niebuhr was Kuyper's North American cousin. Kuyper had departed this earth in 1920, but then Niebuhr came along with some valuable updates ....

One of the ways I earned a bad reputation among some of the reformationals was by opposing this infatuation with Niebuhr. In explaining how and why I came to oppose it, I need to go back to my undergraduate days at Calvin College. As a fine liberal arts institution, Calvin had core requirements, which meant that there were certain courses every student had to take to qualify for graduation. Among them was a sequence of three theology courses. The first of them was an introduction to Biblical studies. And then there was a course in Reformed doctrine, in which the primary textbook was Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Capping the whole business off was a course called "Studies in Calvinism." Of course one could be forgiven for asking: Didn't we just have that course, reading Calvin's own Institutes? The answer was no: the college was convinced that "Calvinism" was not limited to theology in the classical sense of the term but had implications for all areas of life. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, written centuries earlier, was already a step in this direction, for it dealt with the task of government; it is also the article that was revised or updated in the light of newer thinking. [NOTE belgic33]

In this third required core course, we read Abraham Kuyper's "Stone Lectures," which deal with Calvinism in its application to religion, politics, science, and art respectively. But Kuyper's stirring lectures did not provide enough material for an entire course; additional texts were needed. Among the works selected was H. Richard Niebuhr's seminal book Christ and Culture (1951), which includes that oft-cited discussion entitled "Christ the Transformer of Culture" (Chapter 6). And we were left with the impression that what Niebuhr was preaching -- especially in that chapter -- was a continuation of what Kuyper had begun. [NOTE niebuhr33] This impression was not confined to me: James Bratt and Ronald Wells have written that in the years after my own undergraduate stint at Calvin, when a new core course was developed to function within a new curriculum, Niebuhr was elevated to even more exalted status: "His Christ and Culture served as Scripture for `Christian Perspectives on Learning,' a first-year interdisciplinary course deemed vital to the new curriculum; and his fifth category, `Christ transforming culture,' effectively became the college's new motto." [NOTE bratt44]

In this narrative I am withholding the name of the professor who taught the "Studies in Calvinism" course I took, since my own misunderstanding on this point should not be attributed to him. Perhaps I was looking out the window while he was carefully explaining the differences between Kuyper and Niebuhr. My inclination to accept Niebuhr may also have been conditioned by the fact that I had read and been greatly stimulated by another Niebuhr book while I was in high school, namely, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929).

Unlike most of the students enrolled in that "Studies in Calvinism" class, I embarked on a Ph.D. program in philosophy as soon as my B.A. was done. And while I was in graduate school, studying Hegel first at Johns Hopkins and then at the University of Toronto, my mind would wander back to Niebuhr from time to time. Gradually it dawned on me that Niebuhr's philosophy of history has a lot in common with Hegel's, although it does not include the element of dialectic. I then came to see that there is a kind of optimism -- perhaps even complacency -- in H. Richard Niebuhr that sets his thinking off from his brother Reinhold's musings about "irony." The spirit I detected in the thinking of the younger Niebuhr as he promoted the notion of Christ as the transformer of culture is akin to the confidence that followers of Hegel would need to have in the World-Spirit as the person or force that is driving the historical process to where it needs to go. [NOTE hegel33]

In later years I discovered that others had reached the same conclusion. Among them was Gregory Baum, whom I came to quote in lectures and books in support of my assessment. Referring to Niebuhr's "Christ the transformer of culture" theme as the "transformist faith," Baum asked:

How did the transformist faith emerge in the Christian Church? What happened in Christianity, in particular in the most rigid, conservative, and unrepentant church of the West, to generate a transformist understanding of the gospel?''

In intellectual terms, according to Baum, "... this change is in continuity with Hegel rather than with the original Reformers.'' Baum admitted that there were certain elements of transformational thinking in Calvin's writings; yet Niebuhr, according to Baum

... felt that these trends were counterbalanced by a strong emphasis on the over-againstness of God. While Calvin created an action-oriented, innovative religion, he greatly stressed the dualistic character of the Christian message. [NOTE baum33]

In the late 1980s I inscribed some of my conclusions concerning these matters in a book entitled Public Knowledge and Christian Education. That book, which dealt with a number of other matters as well, probably did more to get me into trouble with my reformational friends and colleagues than anything else I have ever written. John Van Dyk of Dordt College wrote a snarky review to which I responded only in private. Friends at Redeemer expressed their dismay, mainly in private conversation with me. A faculty colloquium in which I drew on some of the material in the book did not go over well.

As I look back on that book, I must conclude that it was not sufficiently explicit. Both as an editor and as one who assesses student term papers, I sometimes say to a person who has given me something to read: If you have something to say, then say it! Don't just hint at it. That would also have been good advice to give to Schilder if he had ever been a student in my class. Schilder simply abounds in clever allusions, some of which border on innuendo, which is part of the reason he is hard to translate into English. I should have been more explicit as well when I wrote that book. I suppose I was trying to get a discussion going.

I would like to be able to say that I carried the day in the Niebuhr debate, which has now largely faded away, [NOTE mcgrath33] but I think the truth of the matter is that a number of people gradually drew similar conclusions without a whole lot of prompting from others. In the minds of some, Nicholas Wolterstorff was also associated with Niebuhr's position, but he disavowed it: the "world-transformative Christianity" that he calls for in his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace represents a different kind of spirituality and cultural engagement than what flowed from Niebuhr's understanding of Christ as the transformer of culture.

Part of Niebuhr's appeal to reformationals, I suspect, is that he helped them in their efforts to get the verzuiling impulse out of their system. For many reformationals, it was time to come in out of the cold, so to speak. It was time to interact with non-reformational colleagues in the academy, and also with a broader world of science and scholarship that no longer accepted the validity of a religious basis for work in the university. Niebuhr helped them in this regard, showing them a non-pillarized rationale for Christian scholarly and cultural activity. He did not do this in person, since he died back in 1962, just two years before I started my undergraduate studies (back in those days the verzuiling ideal was still a bright hope). But his heirs and interpreters led many of the reformationals to think that they could be on the Lord's side and still be fully a part of their society and culture, for at the center of it all stood Christ as the transformer of culture.

Mainstream tendencies

In time Niebuhr came to be displaced in the hearts and minds of reformationals -- here I am thinking especially of the mentality at Redeemer, which I know better than any other institution -- by the thinking of Lesslie Newbigin (1909-98). Michael Goheen, who taught at Redeemer for a number of years, deserves a lot of credit for drawing attention to Newbigin as a fruitful source for reformational reflection -- and thereby gently nudging Niebuhr into retirement. [NOTE goheen33] And Niebuhr's fading from the scene also created space for some people in the ICS community to take a mildly Anabaptist turn in their thinking. And so we see the pendulum swinging back and forth.

As the pendulum swung away from a principial commitment to verzuiling, the "stick with your own kind" ideal (West Side Story) began to fade. One result of the gradual shift that took place was that Kuyper's stern opposition to the "volkskerk" (national church) also began to seem a bit quaint. Some Reformationals became more comfortable with churches outside the "free church" tradition. Some turned Anglican, and others affiliated with Presbyterian churches in which the history of fragmentation and schism had been largely overcome.

In the Netherlands, the fear of fragmentation and church splits was exacerbated by the lingering consequences of the debacle of 1944. The church of Kuyper and Bavinck, the church that resulted from the union of 1892, eventually sought to undo the secession of 1834 by seeking union with the national church (Hervormde Kerk) from which it had originally withdrawn. The union was consummated in 2004 with the establishment of what was called the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. In North America, the Christian Reformed denomination found itself on ever friendlier terms with the Reformed Church of America, from which it had split in 1857. The ecclesiastical form of verzuiling called denominationalism had lost much of its allure.

It was not that we were provided with a set of arguments in favor of becoming more mainstream-oriented in our thinking and practices. To some degree, the independent streak faded away as a significant realization crept into the minds of many people at about the same time, namely, that you can't fight city hall.

Getting connected

Technology played a role here, for it seemed impossible not to be connected. You would have to be an old-fashioned Anabaptist to maintain such a principled isolationist posture as to refuse the new forms of connection and communication.

I well recall a time in which people in our community were very suspicious of television and took pride in barring it from their homes as a matter of principle. That taboo largely fell away during my childhood. Even then it was noted that television is an enormous power, and that the admission of television to our homes would bring about very significant long-term changes. There was less debate when the personal computers within our homes (once they are combined with telephone service) gave us most of the infrastructure necessary for getting connected to the world in a much more profound way -- the internet. Just add a modem, and you're in business!

The effect of technology on human society and culture is much studied. It is a commonplace of academic studies of this matter that the leaders of totalitarian, authoritarian and closed societies relish technology for its military advantages but fear it because it tends to loosen their grip on their people. It is especially communications and information management technologies that pose a problem in this regard. In other words, the internet is a constant headache for regimes that still insist on exerting control over their people to an extent that the West finds abhorrent: China comes to mind. [NOTE china33]

I have seen similar attitudes manifested by medical doctors, who have no aspirations in terms of dictatorship but like to be very much in control when it comes to managing their patients. Many doctors seem to regard the internet as a pain in the neck, for it enables their patients to do medical research on their own. Patients then bring what are perceived as irrelevant questions and suggestions to medical consultations. As for dealing with their patients by way of email, many doctors regard this also as a waste of time. They seem to love the knowledge monopoly they long enjoyed.

Among the figures who get studied when there is discussion of technology in relation to closed societies and totalitarianism is the novelist George Orwell (1903-50), who tried to peer into the future back in the 1940s by writing his thought-provoking novel 1984. The novel is indeed compelling reading, but in relation to what it foresaw -- or thought it foresaw regarding technology's ability to control the population and render it subservient -- it was clearly off the mark. Therefore some later commentators find potential for both repression and liberation when they reflect on technology. Egbert Schuurman observes: "If computer development can lead on the one hand to collectivism and computerocracy, it can lead on the other to anarchism through individual utilization, which is a danger as well, a danger that should not be underestimated." [NOTE schuurman22]

Important in Orwell's novel is the idea of the world as continuously divided into three separate camps that have little contact with one another and are either at war or on the brink of war -- verzuiling on a global scale! The tendency of technology to unify the human race in Tower-of-Babel fashion was not foreseen. Nor was Orwell alert to the enormously expanded horizons which the "global village" approach to news has brought us. It used to be the case that our television news broadcasts reported mainly the disasters in our own country or our own part of the world; nowadays, with worldwide broadcasting networks alert to happenings right around the clock, it is hard to predict where the next disaster to which we must give our hearts and minds will be found to have occurred. The protesters against the US war in Vietnam understood these dynamics as early as the 1970s when they chanted: "The whole world is watching!"

In knitting us together into a global village, technology has also robbed us of much of our privacy. This development has become quite a concern in governmental and media circles, and people are perplexed as to what to do about it. There do not seem to be reliable technological fixes. And so there is much talk nowadays of "firewalls." Part of the reason why privacy has become such an issue is that clever people who live quite some distance from us seem to be able to reach into our homes and our personal computers and not only extract data but also create mayhem by using worms and viruses. I suppose that if anyone ever tried to construct sophisticated computer technology to encourage and maintain a verzuiling system, the notion of a firewall would have to play a key role in it.

The global village aspect of our current existence also extends to our preoccupation with terrorism. Most of us are now convinced that one is safe from terrorism almost nowhere -- not even in a placid country like Canada. And although much terrorism is carried out in the name of ideologies and religious outlooks that are rooted in the distant past, we are distressed and frightened to discover how up to date some terrorists are in technological respects.

Moreover, the concerns of some of the people who support terrorists -- or at least avoid any condemnation of their activities -- also reinforces the global village flavor of life in our new millennium. At the time of writing, some cartoons published in a newspaper in Denmark have set off a furor that leaves a faraway country like Iran deeply concerned with what happens in Denmark. Such a situation would have been inconceivable a few generations back, when various parts of the world lived in blissful ignorance of one another. Verzuiling is looking more and more quaint.

Seeking a Christian approach

All of these considerations must be taken into account in the course of any effort to establish what the Christian approach to technology and computer science might be. But as we turn our attention to this issue, it is important to distinguish two sets of questions. First of all, how have the changes in technology and the changes in how we organize our life and communicate with one another and store information affected the ability of reformationals to live in community with one another and to enjoy a sense of identity that derives in part from their relationships with one another? Questions of this sort have already been discussed here and there in this essay. The second set of questions is more classically reformational. It is: What is the Christian or reformational approach to technology in general? Or, to bring things up-to-date and become appropriately specific, what is the Christian or reformational approach to computers and to computer science?

I am by no means an expert in this field, but I did once teach a seminar at Redeemer on the theme of technology and autonomy. My main textbook was a work that had been prepared by a number of thinkers in collaboration: Responsible Technology, edited by Stephen V. Monsma. [NOTE monsma33] While I enjoyed teaching the course, I found the position articulated in the main required reading somewhat lacking in specificity: on the one hand this, said the authors, but on the other hand .... The old saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth came to mind as I studied the book. My disappointment with the book was not hidden from the students, some of whom complained about what they regarded as an excessively critical attitude on my part.

As a philosopher, I am somewhat inclined toward radicalism. I can all too easily get carried away when I talk about technology, and I have some genuine respect for the stern critique of technology articulated by Jacques Ellul (1912-94), [NOTE ellul33] who is sometimes called a "Christian anarchist."

Egbert Schuurman

Reformationals generally find Ellul hard to take. Even though he was officially Reformed, he comes across as an Anabaptist with some curious views about creation and what we are to make of the very first chapters of the Bible. But reformationals are not without help and resources of their own when it comes to these matters. The names that come chiefly to mind as contributing to the discussion are Hendrik Van Riessen (1911-2000) of the Free University, who was both a an engineer and a philosopher, and Egbert Schuurman, who is cautiously critical of Ellul. [NOTE schuurman33] Schuurman is a philosophy professor at a couple of technical universities in the Netherlands and also a professional politician. In this brief survey I will comment mainly on Schuurman's work since he is the more recent writer. Much of what Van Riessen has written must be considered as somewhat dated; things change quickly in the technology field. [NOTE vanriessen33]

Now, Van Riessen and Schuurman did not work in an intellectual vacuum. They identified themselves as reformational philosophers, which means that they stand in the tradition associated chiefly with Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd. [NOTE mekkes33] And within the systematic philosophy developed in this tradition, the notion that we must recognize the existence of some sort of historical modality that has a great deal to do with change and the kind of technical formation that leads to the permanent alteration of society and of modes of production comes to mind. This dimension or modal aspect must surely play a key role when we seek a reformational understanding of technology. But there are difficulties here. One is that there were significant disagreements between Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven about this alleged modality and its implications for the study of history. I have commented on this matter to some degree in the first essay in this series, although I was not then meaning to focus attention on technology.

If there is confusion about "the historical" and its relation to the changes which technology has ushered in, it should not surprise us that Schuurman, whose intellectual lineage is on the Vollenhoven side (he was a student of Van Riessen, who was in turn a student of Vollenhoven), does not seem to know just what to make of Dooyeweerd in all of this discussion. In a lengthy footnote in his book Technology and the Future, which is his main publication regarding technology, he seems to circle inconclusively around the Dooyeweerdian legacy. [NOTE schuurman44]

Even so, Schuurman, as a reformational, senses the need to pay homage to Dooyeweerd. In a later publication on technology he refrains from criticizing Dooyeweerd as such but says gently that he is "deepening and broadening Dooyeweerd's view" by extending it to technology instead of focusing so much on science. The reader might wonder what Dooyeweerd, who had died some decades earlier and therefore did not participate in the startling technological developments that have changed our lives in recent years, would make of this "deepening and broadening." Apparently he was a busy man, and he did not get around to exploring all the avenues his thought seemed to open up. Schuurman writes:

... while Dooyeweerd deserves much credit for pointing out the tension in Western philosophical and scientific thought, I would want to emphasize that the tension or inner conflict is one which encompasses Western culture as a whole and does not just concern the intramural world of science. Dooyeweerd I believe would agree completely with this view. He just did not get around to making a full analysis of the cultural impact of the tension between the ideal of freedom and the ideal of science. [NOTE schuurman55]

In another book (which I have seen only in Dutch), Schuurman goes further in pointing to weaknesses in Dooyeweerd's approach to the technological challenge. He complains that his (i.e. Schuurman's) warnings about the "Babel culture" have been neglected in reformational circles and goes on to say:

Most [reformationals] think along Dooyeweerd's line about culture as an opening-up (ontsluiting) of creation. Others are at home with the theology of Herman Ridderbos, in which the coming of the kingdom is interpreted as the Christianizing of culture. Dooyeweerd as philosopher and Ridderbos as theologian follow roughly the same line. Although they each have their own emphases, it can be said that they do not pay much attention to the radical corruption of humankind, the power of sin and evil, the secularization of culture, and the light provided by Biblical apocalypse when it comes to these matters. In a certain sense they represent an optimistic view about the possibility of human cultural formation. Even so, I find myself able to agree with their vision in its main lines. The mandate for Christians to engage in cultural formation remains in effect. But at the same time it must be recognized that secularization and the ominous developments that accompany it can make it very, very difficult to proceed with Christian cultural formation. If we do not realize this, there is a great danger that we will join with the prevailing trend and thereby contribute to secularization. [NOTE schuurman66]

One almost expects Schuurman to say that we need our own reformational version of Jacques Ellul to get us to take the problem more seriously. [NOTE babel33] It seems that we have a history being lax about such matters -- and it goes back to the days of Kuyper. Schuurman laments:

... technological development was generally received almost without criticism in the Dutch Reformed tradition too. That was true even of Abraham Kuyper .... Although in his architectonic criticism of society as a whole he clearly proceeded from the perspective of eternity in culture and thus of the kingdom of God, he scarcely cautioned against the overvaluation of or exorbitant expectation from technology. Granted, this is somewhat understandable. Modern technology was still in its infancy. ... But he fell far short of recognizing the danger of its becoming an ideology. He himself had perhaps already become its victim when in his work entitled Pro Rege he viewed the possibilities of technology as even greater miracles than the miracles of Jesus. [NOTE schuurman77]

A missing modality?

Those who choose to analyze the problem of the reformational approach to technology in more restricted terms may be inclined to go back to the list of modal aspects and wonder whether Dooyeweerd had finished the job when he gave us his (admittedly provisional) list. A number of years ago my younger brother Edwin Plantinga was serving as Redeemer first computer science professor. In this function one of his responsibilities was to think about a Christian approach to computer science. He used to say -- partly to provoke the reformational element on the faculty -- that Dooyeweerd had left us in the lurch by not assigning a modality specifically to the computer!

My brother has long since departed from Redeemer's faculty ranks to take a position in business. His eventual successor as professor of computer science at Redeemer was Derek Schuurman (no relation to Egbert). The younger Schuurman does have an interest in the philosophy of Dooyeweerd, but when it comes to taking a distinctively Christian approach to computer science, he seeks inspiration in the thinking of Kuyper, as I have encouraged him to do in our regular discussions. He also favors the approach to software development that is widely associated with Linus Torvalds (the creator of the Linux operating system), which is to say that he is committed to "open-source" code for computer programs as opposed to proprietary (or closed) code. [NOTE linus33] Does "open-source" software promote verzuiling?

Now, we saw earlier that a provocative idea that was articulated by Kuyper is that there are basically only two kinds of science. Are there then two kinds of computer science? No one seriously defends such a position. But it does happen that there are two kinds of computers in the world: Macintosh computers and the ones that we have come to call PCs, which originally depended on the operating system called DOS. Christians nowadays often side with the underdog (the emperor Constantine being a distant memory for most of us), and so it is conceivable that the Christian approach would include siding with the underdog by opting for the numerically inferior kind of computer (i.e. Macintosh), which in many technical respects is superior to the PC.

But there is another possibility if one wishes to play the "two kinds" card. One might argue that there are two kinds of software -- or better, two approaches to software development. The younger Schuurman is much enamored of open-source software, which is the increasingly powerful rival to so-called proprietary software, the kind that is favored by Bill Gates and Microsoft and certain other companies. Schuurman is convinced that the open-source movement in computer software development, while not explicitly Christian in orientation, is essentially in tune with Christian ideals. The notion that software needs to be free and that those who work with it need to be encouraged to contribute to its refinement and further development (which is impossible under the proprietary arrangement insisted on by Microsoft) should, in Schuurman's opinion, be fully embraced by Christians working in the field.

Schuurman also indicates that there is something of a Darwinian process (survival of the fittest) at work in the world of open-source software development. When a certain objective is identified as desirable, a number of separate working groups usually spring into existence and begin developing something or other. Eventually the weaker ones lose out in the competition. There may be a merger in terms of personnel, but some sort of Darwinian survivor emerges as the open-source alternative to whenever Microsoft has to offer in the area in question.

Schuurman also relates the open source approach to software to Kuyper's ideal of a free university. Just as the point of open source software (which used to be called free software) is not that no one should ever pay a dime for the service or the product, so also the Free University of Amsterdam does not wish to be known simply as the school where no one needs to pay tuition (there is in fact tuition to be paid). The label "free" has to do rather with the freedom and prerogative of the worker to move wherever the inner logic of the task he is pursuing leads him, unconstrained by artificial limits placed upon him by the state or the church or the business enterprise. There can be no free Christian university without academic freedom, and software users and developers need a comparable freedom. The results and insights they arrive at likewise need to be shared -- not just with the community of fellow believers but with the world at large. And so there is a harmony of spirit between the free or open-source software community and the free university. In this regard, Schuurman considers Redeemer to be a free university as well. [NOTE schuurman88]

Technology undermines verzuiling

Does the division in the software-development world into two rival camps or traditions lead us back to the early twentieth-century situation in the Netherlands in which the verzuiling ideal stimulated the organization of separate camps that had relatively little contact with one another, so that even the philosophers in that small country wound up practicing verzuiling? This does not appear to be the case. And so it really does seem to me that at a deep level, technology, when properly developed and implemented, undermines verzuiling. Indeed, one could make a case that the Microsoft world of proprietary software provides us with more possibilities in terms of maintaining some sort of verzuiling and separatism than the "open-source" camp. I could envision a situation in which the remnants of the Communist world would prefer computers that operated on software and operating systems that were unique to the Communist world and could therefore not be used to communicate so readily with computers in the non-Communist world.

At the very end of this essay I want to return to those philosophers in the Netherlands who practiced verzuiling. It was not that they intended in principle to have no contact with philosophers who did not agree with them. But philosophers, as ordinary human beings, do have a tendency to enjoy being surrounded with like-minded people who will readily nod in agreement. Yet it is widely assumed that philosophers are supposed to possess expertise in the role of presuppositions in human thought; they are also supposed to be interested in the conditions that promote genuine dialogue and so forth. Hence they should be well equipped to deal with people whose thinking proceeds from a different set of presuppositions.

I believe I have dealt with the verzuiling issue in sufficient detail to make it clear why verzuiling can no longer be regarded as the be-all and end-all of our existence as reformational scholars. No one wants to remain in the ghetto. And so it makes sense to ask just how successful reformational philosophers and other scholars have been when it comes to establishing dialogue with groups outside their own camp. And while I'm at it, I should also ask how successful they have been when it comes to the apologetic task (not the same thing as dialogue) of bringing others over to their point of view. Hence the next essay in this series will be devoted to apologetics and dialogue. TO BE CONTINUED .....

Click here to read Essay 4 in this series.

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