Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative SubcultureDutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture by James D. Bratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dutch Calvinism in Modern America


Fascinating, since I grew up in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) near Grand Rapids.  Reading biographies of ancestors familial or religious is usually a helpful self-reflective experience, and doubly so when the forebears are both ethnic AND theological kin.  The first chapter mentions Albertus Van Raalte, an early pioneering pastor who led a group of immigrants and established the Reformed church in which I grew up.  They left the Netherlands for two main reasons: the state church’s liberal decline following the Enlightenment, and the famine that left many farmers nearly destitute.  Emigration was a natural move once they had seceded from the state church.  Bratt spends a bit of time on Kuyper, the father of worldview and “back to principles” thinking.

  Four Options to Relate to the World

His most useful analysis was the grid with four mentalities among the Dutch Reformed.  Two factors led to these four groups.  Some stressed a Kuyperian worldview, others personal piety.  Some stressed an outward optimism, others an inward defensiveness.  The piety-minded optimists were found largely in the mainstream RCA, self-consciously moderate and decent.  Norman Vincent Peale came from this stream.  The worldview optimists or neo-Calvinists stressed engaging with the world and applying Scriptural principles to institution building, like Kuyper.  The more defensive pietiests stressed the confessions and looked to doctrine as the engine of faith, like J. Gresham Machen would later for the Presbyterians.  The more defensive Kuyperians were the “Antitheticals,” always stressing the opposition and incompatibility between worldlings and the regenerate.  Herman Hoeksema and Van Til are representative.

This really helped me place my experience on a map.  Like a fish can’t analyze the water it’s in without help, we analyze our own stories least objectively.  I grew up with a fairly optimistic-pietist church and family (#1, RCA), then had a theological awakening of self-conscious rejection of liberalism (#2, thanks to confessionalists like RC Sproul), went to Calvin College where I had a healthy dose of (#3) neo-Calvinism in its optimistic form, and then landed in a denomination that has drunk its fill of the antithesis (#4, Van Til, Rushdoony, etc.).  What has been disorienting to me is the ignorance or disagreements these camps have with each other.  I picked up scads of RC Sproul tapes for free at an RCA seminary that no longer wants much to do with confessional boundaries and distinctions.  An inquiry of an RCA pastoral search committee of a confessional nature gets near-blank stares.  Calvin College (in camp #3) disdains defensive orthodoxy and creationism that usually goes with camp #2.  Lots of folks introduced to Reformed theology through Van Til (camp #4) aren’t even aware there are other Reformed options!

  If you’re not Dutch, you’re not… left out

Now these options aren’t unique to the Dutch Reformed.  Most Christians land in one of these camps or the other, and we should think it through deliberately.  Is your spirituality defined more by private exercises like Bible reading or evangelism, or by involvement in a Christian school or missions or social work?  It’s a false dichotomy and we shouldn’t choose, but most of us lean a certain way.  Is your thinking more pro-active and engaging with Joe-at-the-office, or do you tend to see them more as the adversary to be defended against?  We can so vilify Muslims or Arminians or Democrats that we won’t think to strike up a conversation with them.  Or we can be so winsome that we don’t keep distinctions like we should.

  The War

Reading of the Dutch experience in America at the onset of WWI was sad.  Several professors or ministers pointed out the American hypocrisy of demanding to be treated as a neutral party while supplying England with arms.  They tended to see England as the culprit more than Germany.  In the patriotic frenzy of war time Americans lashed out at these sentiments.  The papers printed suggestions of their deportation or execution for this sedition, or maybe eugenics (forced sterilization) was the answer.  But many congregations supported the war, and they wrapped their sanctuaries in the flag as a show of support for the war effort – at least those in camps 1 and maybe 3, above did.  Others steadfastly refused, given the transcendence of the church over any nation.  One minister took to carrying a pistol, he received such public hostility over this refusal.  It wasn’t an over-reaction; he was threatened on the streets of Holland, Michigan.  Other ministers called his refusal to allow the flag in church both treasonous and criminal.  The war intensified the disagreements over how the church should relate to the world.

After the war, the infighting turned theological, over common grace and general revelation.  One synod renounced a professor for being too cosy with the modern science behind archaeology.  Soon after it rejected Herman Hoeksema for denying common grace.  Has God “left much good in the world” (113), or is there no common denominator between the believer and the unbeliever?

In later chapters, Bratt gives more time to Dutch Reformed novelists who mainly reject their roots, than he does to Berkhof, Van Til, Berkouwer, Lewis Smedes, and Dooyeweerd.  This was unfortunate.  Still, the history is immensely helpful as a case study for how one group of Christians sought to live in the world while not becoming of the world, through their own immigration, eking out a living, wartimes and prosperity.  Much of it comes down to this question: how do we keep our young people faithful to Christ, and from going after the allures of the world?  I leave you with camp #3’s answer, which tends to be my own:

“Whoever believes that we can remain outside the world… by urging our young people to embrace the Anabaptist error is badly mistaken.  It is exactly the opposite.  If we understand with our children that God in His Common Grace has left much good in the world, and that even a Christian, yes especially a Christian as a child of the Lord, can and may be thankful for it, then our coming generation… shall maintain our precious Calvinism….  Along the line of the Anabaptist error, through the denial of the good that God gives to his creatures, we shall within a few decades die of spiritual anemia” (113).

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