[K:JNWTS 20/1 (May 2005) 12-52]

Editor's Introduction

On the morning of September 4, 1888, Geerhardus Vos was installed as Professor of Didactic and Exegetical Theology for the Theologische School (now Calvin Theological Seminary) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The twenty-six year old Frieslander, freshly back from a three-year sojourn on the continent and Ph.D. in hand, gazed out upon an audience familiar to him in the Spring Street Christian Reformed Church. After all, it was his home church—the church to which his father had crossed the Atlantic in 1881, six-member family in tow, in order to begin a New World pastorate. The dignity of the occasion was not lost on the dutiful, well-traveled son (Grand Rapids, Princeton, Berlin, Strasbourg, not to mention Amsterdam and Utrecht, from 1883 to 1888). With his family and Grand Rapids friends about him, the son was charged by the father, Jan Hendrik, from 2 Timothy 2:13 ("Study to show thyself approved unto God"). But that was the business of the morning.

On the evening of September 4, 1888, Geerhardus Vos delivered his acceptance address (or inaugural speech) in the same venue, to what must have been much the same audience. After all, here was the first professor at the School to earn a Ph.D.—and that a European doctorate from Germany. The title of the address, as reported in De Wachter for September 12, 1888, was De Uitsichten der Amerika Theologie ("The Prospects of American Theology").

The manuscript copies of this address are extant in two forms in the Heritage Hall Archive of Calvin Theological Seminary. The first, in a kind of Dutch shorthand, contains two signatures and two dates. The first date is August 29, 1888 followed by the signature "G. Vos." This is undoubtedly the date on which Vos finished writing the text. The second date is May 7, 1889. Above this date is "J.B. Hoekstra, Pella, Iowa, overgeschriven" ("copied"). The second copy of the address is a 72-page version, written out in full, also signed by J.B. Hoekstra and dated May 7, 1889.

Nearly a year before (October 23, 1887), Johannes B. Hoekstra (1855-1949) had been ordained a minister in the Christian Reformed Church following his graduation (diploma) from the Theologische School in Grand Rapids. Like Vos, Hoekstra was born in Friesland—came to America and received his seminary education in Grand Rapids. (NB. He died in October 1949, in Grand Rapids—the same year and place in which Vos himself died two months earlier.) At his ordination, Hoekstra was installed as pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa where he served from 1887-1891.

How did Hoekstra come to be involved with the manuscript of Vos's address? From this distance, we may only speculate. Was Hoekstra present on September 4, 1888 and subsequently asked Vos for a copy of his remarks which he later recopied in Pella, Iowa (hence the later date)? Or does the date on Hoekstra's copy suggest that Vos traveled to Pella and delivered the address again to the Dutch Reformed community there? Hoekstra's copy then may represent a Dutch 'speed shorthand' version of the original, perhaps produced as Vos was speaking. Or is there/are there other possible explanations?

We remain in the dark about the provenance of Hoekstra's version, but we no longer remain in the dark about what Vos said on the occasion of occupying his chair at Grand Rapids. Our translator has let the light of English shine on a remarkable speech, full of typical Vosisms (as the informed reader will note). We have a new window into the brilliant mind of our subject, freshly back from study in Europe, reflecting on the cultural scene of America and its inordinate pragmatism. There is much to note here which indicates things have not changed all that much. America and America's churches are still dominated by the pragmatic practical. Vos labels this empiricism. It is certainly philosophically grounded, not biblically (let alone confessionally) rooted. And so, with the Reformed biblical-theological giant, we continue to observe the omnipresent tyranny of the practical. Will American theology ever be any other than practice-driven pop culturism? Many contemporary churches and publishing houses and seminaries are continuing to prove that very point. Vos was certainly prescient as well as observant.

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The Prospects of American Theology

Geerhardus Vos, Ph.D.

Translated by Ed M. van der Maas

It was not easy for me to find a suitable topic for the address which (according to an old and venerable custom) I must give to you today. Although the multitude of subjects which the Curators of the School have assigned me to teach gave me a wide range of choices, the choice was, on the other hand, limited by more than one consideration. I could expect—as is indeed the case—to face a mixed audience, and it would be inappropriate, at the beginning of a teaching position in a discipline that seeks to be eminently practical, to deal with a topic that for most of you lies outside your field of vision. I trust that you will not take it amiss when under these circumstances I have made a virtue of necessity and have deliberately resisted the urge to discuss a concrete topic with you. Allow us to encourage you at this time to undertake an exploration of the broad field of our own entourage and in broad, though not incoherent, strokes point to

The Prospects of American Theology. We will look successively at

I. The obstacles that stand in the way of its development;

II. The advantages that benefit its development;

III. The demands that it must therefore impose on itself.


When we Hollanders, who for the most part still have a faithful memory of the conditions in the old Fatherland who, indeed, in our personal life here feel in more than one area the aftereffects of the forces that shaped and moved the life of the nation, when we set out to assess the conditions in the New World, then it goes without saying that by dint of contrast the verdict must turn out rather severe. But if this is true of virtually every area of life, it is especially true of the large area of religious and theological life we want to explore today. Whereas, however, an evaluation of conditions here from the perspective of a foreign national perspective falls under suspicion of narrow-mindedness and one-sidedness, in this case it brings with it a measure of commendation. We Hollanders, after all, have in our heart always been theologians. In all of God's earth there is no nation to be found that has stood under the influence of theological ideas as has ours. It is not too much to say that its art, its scholarship, its industry, its entire history have developed from religious motives. Thus even that which seems to stand in contrast to the religious and theological life has in Holland been born from the womb of theology and been cultivated under its auspices. What we find, for example, of independent philosophy in our history owes its existence exclusively to this theological bent of our national character.

When, influenced by these memories, we look at the phenomena of American life, we unavoidably encounter a sharp contrast. Here one breathes in a different atmosphere than that of theology. Here religious questions are not the dominant issues of daily life. It is not an interest in things theological that propels the mighty machine of American life. The life of the church in its theoretical aspect is not the soil from which the tree of the whole of this modern culture draws its sap, and which in turn it overshadows with its broad branches.

True, there is enough that can be called "interest in religion." We are richly endowed with it especially in things external and practical. In the areas of missions and Christian philanthropy exceedingly much is being done. Theology also has its Maecenas.1 Nevertheless, no one who takes a deeper look will dare to claim that Christianity, to the extent that it is a systematic worldview, i.e., theology, is with all this not guaranteed a central force by which it can have an impact on all spheres of life.

The contrast we mentioned earlier remains therefore, and it cannot be called unjust that, when we speak about the Prospects of American Theology, we always keep it at hand as a corrective. Even if we grant that people both here and there have fallen into extremes, it nevertheless remains true that every extreme is best brought into awareness by means of its opposite. Therefore it should not be considered a naïve prejudice when we more or less use this [contrast]2 in trying to illuminate the obstacles to the flowering of our theology. These obstacles can be traced mainly to three phenomena. These seem to us to lie (a) in the influence of practical empiricism3 [/realisme/]4 ; (b) in a lack of thinking through our principles5; and (c) in the lack of a sense of historical continuity.

A. The Influence of Practical Empiricism

The first thing that draws our attention is the separation that exists between theology and everyday life6, the isolation in which the former stands vis-à-vis the latter. It is one sphere beside other spheres, without the development of [real] contact with them at the many points where they touch, so that its driving force can flow over into them.7 But if we are not mistaken, this is only one of a group of similar phenomena, and as such we must view it in connection with that general law to which it is subject, in order to arrive at a correct understanding and, if possible, an explanation. One can say, we think, that not only on this specific point, but rather generally in all of our turbulent American life that organic unity is lacking that ties together even the most heterogeneous [elements] and gives it one tone or one color. If we are allowed to make use here already of our liberty to speak in contrastive terms, we would speak of fragmentation8 as opposed to unity. Not of multifariousness as opposed to uniformity, since it would appear that this would not frame the contrast correctly. It is precisely the unity of a deeper principle that is lacking here. The waters of American development, instead of digging one channel9 and flowing through that single channel, sending out branches in all directions and watering all of the richness of life,10 flow in at least four or five unconnected streams over the fields of our society. There is a mechanical splitting up of what belongs together. Instead of being the expression of one spirit, life is the encampment of a variety of spirits. Life is fragmentary, shattered, moving in many seemingly independent directions—the systematic, consistent, but therefore also elevating and vitalizing [element] is lacking. Perhaps nowhere has the world displayed such a colorful diversity without unity as the observant eye is given to see here every day.

The question is thus no longer, What is the cause of the isolated position of our theology? This [question] has resolved itself in the broader question, What are the causes of this general fragmentation, of this lack of unity and vitality? What divisive and centrifugal force is it that permeates our life and causes to shatter into a thousand worthless pieces that which was to constitute one harmonious11 whole, joined together and kept together by the holy order of the principia?12

It won't do to derive an answer to this question from incidental, nonessential circumstances. To be sure, the multiplicity of elements from which our nationality is in the process of being formed is to blame in part for the incoherent aspect of our lives. But this does not in any way explain everything, for there are regions where the solidity and stability of a long-established population of common descent leave nothing to be desired, where nevertheless the same lack of a higher unity makes itself felt. It is equally unsatisfactory to point to the unique character of our political institutions, which, averse to all centralization, and favoring [/respecting/] as much as possible the freedom of the separate spheres,13 have left alone [/encouraged/] this void, this lack of connectedness between them. This answer is merely negative. That the state has not done what it could not do and was not allowed to do without transgressing its voluntarily adopted boundaries, does not give us [/is not/] an explanation for the fact that the various social spheres themselves, or at least those among them that were given this calling, did not of their own accord seek and find a unity.14 Although the state is not the ideal that, elevated in value above all other relationships, exists only for its own benefit, there lies nevertheless from the beginning15 in the heart of people the need to bring together the various spheres of life into a unified whole16 by means of submission to an ideal; where that need is keenly felt, there even the most diverse manifestations of our existence will spontaneously, like the elements in a crystallization, sparkle harmoniously together around a single principle.

We must therefore look for a more absolute and deeper cause. And we thought we had found it in that practical empiricism [/realism/] that, as the most recognizable trait of the American national character, has left its imprint on all manifestations of that character and not least on its relationship to theology.

Practical realism! I regret that I have to make do with two foreign words to convey [that] which as the most concrete and palpable of all phenomena should17 not be alien to us. By realism we mean here the worldview18 that lets itself be seized and controlled by the visible world that is experienced through the senses,19 which appears to us at first glance to be the most real. It stands over against idealism, to the extent that the latter is the submission to a spiritual principle that is not derived from a visible world itself, but that, drawn from a higher source, man brings into [this world],20 applies to it, and implements through it.

This contrast between realism and idealism permeates our entire conscious life. There is a realistic, or if you prefer, empiricistic epistemology, that assumes that there is no other guarantee of truth than the immediate manifestation of the inner and outer world, as it thrusts itself upon us in our primitive experience of seeing, hearing, touching, etc., or through inner observation of ourselves. On the other hand there is, then, an idealistic epistemology, that, convinced of the inadequacy of that direct experience, takes, in order to give us unfailing certainty, its higher point of departure in the idea, in order to judge experience from that perspective. She may chose this basic point of departure in the solidity of intuition, in the certainty of logical thinking, or on the "earthquake-proof" rock of faith in the Almighty, [but] in all those cases she begins with faith, and stands with this, her ideal character, in direct contradistinction to any realistic epistemological principle.

But there is also a realism in the will, where it reaches for the material and tangible, for the sensory and experiential world as the highest reality, a seeking after all that is before our eyes and lies on the surface of existence, a delighting in the treasure on earth, which moth and rust can destroy and the tunneling hands21 of thieves can reach. And over against that again [stands] that thirst for [a] higher and holier reality that wells up from the depth of the soul and seeks with spiritual urgency also in the real external world the revelation of a higher, divine thought.

Finally, there is a realism of the emotions that reacts only when touched directly by what lies outside us in the area of lower urges and that makes its strings vibrate. And over against that again stands a more delicately tooled and more highly developed emotional life, that, open to invisible influences, subsides and revives at every breath that comes to us from the spiritual world.22

In all three respects, gentlemen, but especially in the practical arena, is there a strong, realistic current in these habits. Unconsciously, but therefore no less swift and sure, do the spirits pull in that direction. People want, both in theory and in practice, only naked reality. There is in the first place in science a tendency to make experience the sole criterion of truth. This is evident already in the dominance that the study of the natural sciences has among us, in their exceptional flowering, in the predilection with which people devote themselves to it. In this area we can, notwithstanding the youthfulness of our strengths,23 well nigh compete with the old world. And as proof that there are no accidental causes in play here, but rather a deep-rooted orientation of the spirit that expresses itself, if the fact can serve, that this subconscious urge has also sought and found its philosophical expression in the evolutionary theory.24 In no other system perhaps has the spirit of our time, the spirit also [/especially/] of the land where we live, so clearly reflected itself as in that of Herbert Spencer, the great English thinker. He is the prophet at whose feet the children of this age have sat, and still want to sit. Everything, including logical thinking, is by him derived from the processes of experience. According to the law of evolution, the sum of experiences brings about a habitus of mind that is the foundation of all scientific axioms, including the theory of evolution itself, as well as of all moral and religious concepts. There is no idea that is not the product of the reality that can be experienced, not only abstracted from it but created by it. Moral concepts come into being because experiences of usefulness and harmfulness, acquired by earlier human generations, have through consolidation and organization exerted a certain influence on the nervous system, and thus, by means of continuous inheriting, became in us a capacity for moral intuition, for concepts of good and evil. The same theory is used to explain the origin of theological convictions.25 Behold what this philosophy "from the hart to the heart" has to say to our contemporaries.

But this is only the theoretical, self-conscious expression of what as a subconscious practical striving dominates and moves the millions. Few may have accepted this system in its totality—indeed, for this we are not thinkers enough—but they can be numbered in the hundreds, also among Christians and neologians of this country, who have adopted with approval its main idea, the theory of evolution. Now it is not our intent, nor in our power, to submit the philosophical ideas of such a giant mind to our insignificant critique, but we only want to look at the phenomena and try to understand them in their inner coherence. And how then would it then be possible that in an age whose deepest philosophy of life26 is the image and product of such a philosophy, how would it be possible that in a country where we, in spite of ourselves, again and again betray our sympathy for such ideas, how could [in this country]27 the plant of Sacred Theology have flowered and borne fruit?

All true theology must by virtue of its [core] principle stand diametrically opposed to such an orientation with its strongly developed sense for the external. We cannot think of theology other than as an expression of a healthy and vigorous idealism, of a life view that has a richer content than the sum of the external things of this world. [It is] not as if it wants to sacrifice reality for chimeras or for mirages of the mind.28 She recognizes rather that there is a higher, truer reality than that of nature—the reality of the realm of grace. But she denies (and therefore she is idealism) that that reality can be found in nature and understood by natural man, indeed, that also nature in itself could have value and significance apart from the knowledge of God. Rather, she confesses that in all areas of life God's glory as the highest idea must, as ultimate goal, be introduced and worked out, and that only for him who by the light of God's Spirit submits the totality of his knowledge to this idea, is it possible to be scientific. And here, in her very heart, she comes in collision with the realism of our day. This [realism] does not know God and does not want to take him into account. It finds its point of departure, not in the Creator but in the creature, and does not acknowledge a higher authority than experience, which is given preeminence. It does not seek to make the creature subservient to God, but beginning with the creature and finding no way up from [the creature],29 ends theoretically as well as practically in idolizing the creature.

Not only directly, but also to a much greater degree indirectly through its consequences, this realism has a harmful effect on the development of theology, because it leads to the dividedness of life to which we pointed earlier, which is also indebted to the isolated position of theology. Sin and empiricism that in a sinful manner views the creature apart from God, cannot bring about a true unity/integration of life. They may centralize facts and data around a core concept—achieving an organic whole they cannot.30 Precisely because they are continually turned outward, they lose themselves in the multiplicity [of] phenomena, in the sheer quantity31 of things, and they get lost in the labyrinth of the world, wrenched away from God and no longer an organic whole.32 This process also begins to move beyond life33 to have an impact on science. Here also are innumerable spheres standing side by side, without mutual connectedness, and who[ever] wants to have an overview of science as a whole, must be satisfied with a sheer arithmetical listing of the individual disciplines. He can melt them together into a skeleton, but it lacks the spirit of life—a body it does not receive. Empiricism is lethal for all [theological] encyclopedia. It has no eye for the whole, but remains stuck in the individual pieces. He who is a theologian at heart confesses by contrast that no discipline34 can stand by itself, independent of the others, especially not independent of theology,35 and come out well. On this point theology is in agreement with philosophy, in that it must claim a central standpoint. It is purest superficiality to imagine that in the empirical [/exact/] disciplines it does not matter whether one takes God into consideration—that it is nonsense to speak of Reformed [/Christian/] physics. Ultimately such an assertion rests on nothing else than on the unconscious application of this empirical, so-called practical, principle, that runs as an intersecting line through the realm/domain of science and divides what belongs together. One believes to be able to put together mechanically that which must from the beginning grow together if it is truly to be one. Especially the pedagogical view of most of our countrymen springs from the same fact. This is why the demand for a truly Christian, if need be confessional, school must remain for many, even devout, Christians a stumbling block and foolishness, since they hold the mistaken notion that Christianity and theology can be satisfied with standing as one sphere side by side with those many others, and that a single hour of Bible reading, woven in among all the other hours of secular instruction, is sufficient to raise a nation of Christians. Over against this stands again theology, which cannot and must not let itself be isolated, and for which the surrender of its all-encompassing claims would be the denial of her deepest self-awareness and a throwing away of her own birthright. But in yet another sense does theology stand under the influence of this practical striving, to the extent that it has awakened an antipathy toward everything in it that is abstract and theoretical. The understanding of reality in our time finds little that is appealing in her ethereal gestalt. With her concepts and dogmas she floats so high above the questions of practical life and keeps her eyes turned so consistently upwards that an earthward-focused generation that feels itself at home in this world, cannot possibly take her into account. We have become strangers in the realm of theses and of systems. And when a problem crosses our path and would tempt us to enter that world, then, in order to avoid having to deal with the issue on a deeper level, we hurry to find any practical solution nearest at hand. Averse from any urge to speculate; yes, carefully avoiding any blot that might be cast on our character as sober, practical Americans, they try at all costs to keep the ground of concrete life under their feet.

Every dogma is the fruit of an attempt to bring unity to the world of our thoughts. And because this need for unity of thought has withered in us, an anti-doctrinal wind blows around us that has the effect that theology is ignored. It is not contested but ignored. O, it would be a thousand times better for her if she were sought out on her own territory—even if with inimical intentions—and turned her garden into a jousting field. In the heat of battle, as the swords sound, she would perhaps regain her self-awareness, and she would perhaps wrest from her enemy the conviction that henceforth she had to be reckoned with. It is not a shying away from dogmatism that is at work here, but an antipathy toward dogma itself. Hence the ambivalence, which is expressed in church circles without murmur, albeit without interest, bowing under it, but ignoring it outside the church. This is why the effort is made to separate the practical side of Christendom, for which people still have living sympathy and that is acknowledged to have a measure of effectiveness, from the theoretical. Hence the disappearing of catechetical instruction, the preparatory school for theology, not only as [a reflection of] practical Christendom but also as a system of Christian truth in the consciousness of the young people. Hence preaching that has lost virtually all its dogmatic content, through which, in the past, she nourished the conscious life of the church and cultivated a clear-headed Reformed generation. Hence—but why go on—you sense already that what is at issue here is a matter of life and death, because when our theology is anything, it is a worldview taught by God that does not only involve the method of the expansion of Christendom, but that gives, although not exhaustive but nevertheless definite and absolutely certain, information about the meaning of heaven and earth, of life and death, and about all problems that torment the human heart and the human mind.

However, she has long since not been adorned with that glory among us. She has lost much of that splendor even in the estimation of the church . There the fullness36 of faith is also lacking, which, in the possession of the rich divine wisdom, senses itself to be far elevated above all worldly wisdom. The church of God is no longer proud of its prophetic office, no longer knows itself to be queen in the realm of thought. She most emphatically underestimates the influence that concepts and dogmas, and the entire theoretical side of its faith, must and can have on the world today. By adopting the thesis that one must have an impact through the power of love and the spirit of Christendom rather than through the doctrines of truth, she has thrown away its best weapons and done herself inestimable damage. Or does not God himself work through the hammer of the Word? Does not all his grace come to our heart via the line of thought through our consciousness to our heart? Has not our faith besides assent and trust [also] a side that is called knowledge? Yes, has not Christendom, as soon as it ceases to be theory [or] teaching, become at that moment a subordinate phenomenon [and] instead of the religion one of the many religions, so that any pretense to absolute validity must be surrendered? The great authority on the philosophy of antiquity, Zeller, says somewhere, that with Christendom a new concept, that of orthodoxy, has come into the world. By this he means that in the realm of Christendom for the first time a doctrinal faith for the first time became a moral quality. In the word37 rechtzinnigheid ["right-mindedness"] the two concepts of moral rectitude and theoretical view [/conviction/] are united in one term; here dogma ceases to be something innocent or indifferent. For the world of antiquity this was not the case. It measured whether or not faith was punishable by its political utility. Christianity emerged with the criterion of an absolute truth, and not being in agreement with this truth came to be viewed as sin. And thus it is! But if this is so, how much that is un-Christian and anti-Christian is not hiding among us under all those leveling attempts that seek here to promote the external unity of the churches at the expense of the purity of doctrine. Where has that holy reverence for the majesty of Christian orthodoxy gone, that has thus grown together with the root of Christianity? O, we must confess with shame that the deepest cause of that lack of esteem for dogma and theology that we lament in American Christianity, is a lack of self-confidence, of trust in the veracity of our God and his infallible revelation. If we believed it, we would think more and with greater liking, and maintain the thoughts of God over against the thoughts of the world.

We now come to theology itself. Practical realism has had an even more far-reaching impact inside its own circle than outside it. In addition to the fact that it made theory move into the background, it has adulterated38 what remained of theory and theoretical striving, and put it on a wrong track. It is first of all a fact that the theology of the seminaries in this country are much more geared toward training evangelists than theologians. They all, some more than others, have to some degree the character of artificial breeding grounds of ministers of the Gospel. Now, it is not in the least our purpose to deny that theology is a practical discipline par excellence, which must inevitably bleed to death and die if it is severed from the church and its concerns. But precisely because we think of [theology] as linked to the church, we are also obliged to ascribe to it a dual calling. She is the highest top of the tree of faith that grows out of the church and strives upward from below. As such she has to educate theologians, and cultivate knowledge of God for the church, apart even from all practical concern. But that same tree can also be considered as bowing down from above, to the extent that it spreads its branches, loaded with fruit, over the church and provides it with nourishment. As such theology has the calling to transpose all its theory into practice. Now this dual calling may lead to the danger that theology, by exclusively emphasizing one of these two parts, will become one-sided. And when the question arises toward which extreme she tends in this country,39 there can be no doubt about the answer. She has sinned, not through an intellectualism that stands outside life, but rather through a small-minded striving for utility that does not want to be interested in anything of which it cannot immediately see its practical utility. And yet, by this exaggeration she has effected precisely the opposite of what she intended to. After all, it remains beyond dispute that fruitful praxis can only be achieved by means of a slow growth of theory. Even as medical science in our day begins to understand more and more that it must not lose itself blindly seeking drugs, if it wants to be more than quackery, and therefore seeks to establish its therapy and pharmacology on a solid foundation of anatomy and physiology and pathology—theology must equally remember that it needs to allow the tree of theory time to cultivate fruit from bud and blossom, and that a premature looking for unripe fruit and a premature knocking of green fruit off the tree does not result in any gain and sometimes leads to great loss.

But not only is theory pushed into the background, what remained of theoretical effort was steered onto a wrong track. That can be deduced already from the fact that the studies of our best theologians today focus by preference on the critical and exegetical disciplines, again, for no other reason than that in these areas there can be found much more that is concrete40 and that appeals to realistic, and beyond that to skeptical inclinations, than in the areas of ethics or dogmatics, not to speak of encyclopedia. Theology is essentially a systematic discipline. However, the fact is that in spite of all interest in what is peripheral, it is precisely there where the actual systematization begins, the enthusiasm wanes. But this shortcoming finds its most pronounced expression [not merely]41 in the lack of an encyclopedia but in the utter absence of a deeply felt need for it. It is not an arbitrary criterion we establish here. For we can judge about the state of the consciousness, whether it be normal or not, only according to (or out of) whether or not there is a presence of a self-awareness. If the latter is absent or is muted we conclude that [the person] is incompletely developed or insane. But what is theology other than the truth of God, taken from the Scriptures and taken into and processed by the reflective consciousness of the church? And what is encyclopedia of theology other than the self-awareness with which theology thinks about her own essence? Thus42 a theology that has not yet reflected on the necessity of this work or on its absence, certainly cannot be the ideal of [what it means to be] scholarly. Any true organism must come to an awareness of its unity, and if this is absent, it is indistinguishable from a mechanical structure. The fact then is that all too often theology in this country is absorbed in a collection of subjects and skills of whose interconnectedness the young student must remain in deep darkness even in his most lucid moments, because he has never as yet seen the architectural structure of his discipline rise before his mind's eye. And who can enumerate all the harmful effects that flow from this lack? Not only must all truth that has been ripped from its context remain uncomprehended, but one even runs the risk, as long as one does not know his organic law of life, of taking in as nourishment that which can only be poison for the constitution. For the encyclopedia is not only self-awareness, she is the medical self-awareness, the therapeutic of theology. Finally, the theologian who has failed on this point in his work lacks the true spirit of his vocation, the professional sense, if I may express myself so, that is only cultivated by a sense of the unity of the principles underlying the multifaceted nature of his work.43 He may feel himself to be a preacher, or evangelist, or historian, or linguist, as long as he does not see the beautiful coherence in which the Lord God put together for us all elements44 and subjects that belong to the knowledge of him, and [as long as he does not see] in its center his own place pointed out to him, he will never become in the true sense of the word a theologian.

B. A second difficulty which the development of theology in this country runs into, and which we must briefly mention, is a remarkable lack of thinking through the implications of principia.45 It can easily be shown how closely this concept is linked with the matter we just touched on. It is actually only the obverse, or rather the result, of a realistic-empirical view of things. If it is a fact that this world is not merely an aggregate of matter and forces, but the battleground on which principia, be they divine, be they demonic, jumble against and collide with one another, then it follows that every thing has, in addition to the side it turns outward—which is the only [side] realism takes into consideration—also has another side, with which it is anchored in the higher, invisible world of ideas and [with which it] is involved in this battle of principia. From this flows a double evaluation of things: one can assess them for what they are, i.e., according to their bare, independent content, regardless of their origin; but one can also view them as legitimate members and servants of a circle of family members related to the principium, which one measures fairly, not according to what they appear to be in themselves, but on the basis of their origin. The true essence we deal with here is the ideal meaning of things, in which their first origin and their final end coincide. If this is true in everyday life, where no one will be foolish enough to be satisfied with the analysis of the bare fact or the isolated movement but will always base approval or disapproval on the basis of motives, which speak to him out of [both] fact and movement, how much more is this then true of the world of science and ideas. Nothing here stands by itself, and it would therefore be the greatest carelessness to accept a scientific thesis only on the basis of its content, without asking after its origin. The word thought is feminine,46, 47 she is pregnant; in addition to her actual being she carries within her a potential being, and we cannot accept the mother-to-be without also accepting her child in the bargain. Every thought is48 the daughter of another thought—and however much humanity would like to forbid us to impose the guilt of parents and ancestors on [an idea], and to force us to judge it only on its own merits, the inexorable reality does not allow such a thing, and woe [be to]49 the man who dares to marry an idea without taking into consideration her pedigree. It is a marvel how from the depth of generations old sins that seemingly had died away want to resurface; but it is no less a marvel and no less a fact that from that invisible background of principia everything is endowed with an inner seed of good and of evil, through which in spite of all changes and distortions [things] reveal their origin even after many years. Here experience as such is of no use. What is required is a principial thinking through from principia to consequences and from consequences to principia. An even more refined sensibility than that which distinguishes concepts is necessary to discriminate between these currents of spiritual atmosphere which the concepts bring to us. But no matter how difficult it may be, we must know whence the wind blows and in what direction it goes, unless we want to let it freely blow toward fruitfulness or destruction. And the realistic direction in which this wind blows has increasingly numbed our time and especially our environment to this spiritual meteorology, to this50 principial reflection.51 Precisely because we take into account only that which is before our eyes, we again and again let the mysterious connection, the inner interconnectedness, the invisible relatedness of the concepts go unnoticed. A major materialization of dogma takes place; it is denuded of all life and movement. Thus emerges an intermingling of Christ and Belial, of truth and lie, of theology and of philosophy falsely so-called, that can be perceived as satisfactory only when all synthesis has long been ignored.52 And because in the end the force of the principium subconsciously asserts itself, this force, when we do not allow [it] to consciously do its work, will make us, in spite of ourselves, the instrument of her intentions; and thus the danger emerges that we either will be consumed with internal conflict or come altogether under the influence of the hostile principium. Thus it may fill us with legitimate concern for American theology—also to the extent that it is and wants to be Reformed—when we see it incorporate, in fatal blindness for this inescapable demand, so many heterogeneous elements; when, misled by appearances, it wants to appropriate results and use fruits that have grown on an utterly reprehensible tree. We already find ourselves in a period in which for most people it is rather a matter of indifference how one arrives at one's faith or theology and what the foundation for this faith or theology is, as long as one has this or that theology. That such an indifference toward principia is highly dangerous and provides fertile soil especially for ethical intrusions requires no argument. And a single glance at the colorful map of religious opinions with its intersecting lines shows us how much syncretism it has indeed already produced among us. Such a variety can only create the height of inconsistency or, to state it positively, only personal arbitrariness and blindness toward principia can be involved here. But there is no lack of concrete examples. We already mentioned the spread of the doctrine of evolution. Among the brethren of Presbyterian descent who call themselves Reformed more than one now accepts the newer view of Scripture that has been imported directly from Germany or via England. If we think this through on the basis of principium, there can be no doubt that this view of Scripture is a direct offshoot of the doctrine of God's exclusive immanence, i.e., of a pantheistic philosophy. But it is doubtful that if one wants to hold on to the theistic concept of God, and to a corresponding revelation, one must accept the doctrine of inspiration in its classical,53 full meaning. Attempts have been made to escape this by conceiving of a theism that is comprehensible without inspiration, but without success. Even as it is impossible for pantheism to view inspiration as a possibility, so it is impossible for a clearly thought-through theism to maintain itself without [a doctrine of inspiration]. In spite of this we see that men of name and authority indulge in the foolish illusion that they can through their own ingenious inventions link together that which cannot be joined. Such a thing would be impossible if, instead of being satisfied with accepting things as they are, one viewed them in terms of their spiritual relatedness and origin on the one hand, while on the other hand consistently54 extending the line of one's own principia. Not only this [newer] view of Scripture, but many other intrusions would thus be excluded that now uselessly cover the earth and overgrow the native plants. It would not be difficult to show that the tendency that shows itself here and there to make theology Christocentric instead of theocentric betrays a questionable affinity. The spirit and method that characterize the critical studies of the Scriptures point in the same direction. A concept of biblical theology is in vogue which, [if] clearly formulated, immediately would appear to stand in contradiction to the dogma of inspiration. But let this suffice to serve as example, and as proof that the gift of principial reflection is in equally large measure necessary for both the well-being and the essence of theology. It is true that there can on the other hand be a certain fanaticism in the application of principia55 that seems to have discarded all Christian modesty. It is, however, not at all [difficult]56 to distinguish it from the true, principial theology57 which, no matter how resolute, remains conscious of the fact that it knows only in part. The latter is always prepared to admit the limitations of its powers.

But precisely because [this theology] is keenly aware of these limitations does it seek to more clearly draw the line between the knowable and the unknowable, and the smaller the area that remains under her control, the more fully she attempts to establish her sway. There where she cannot know, she attempts if possible to discover the reason for her lack of understanding; there where she is in doubt, [she attempts] to indicate clearly the two emotions between which she oscillates and to trace the cause of the doubt. Especially a Reformed theologian, who owes it to his discipline to maintain its fame as science through clear thinking, should know, not only that he believes, but also why, and must not cease digging until he has reached the bottom and sees the sunlight of the Spirit sparkle on the bedrock58 of God's truth. Over against not only the power of unbelief and scepticism, but also over against the impotence of that intolerable indifferentism that faces him everywhere with a "Where do I stand?" and "Can I do differently?" [the Reformed theologian] should make the manly word of Luther the motto of his life and the conviction of his theological conscience: "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, so help me God. Amen."

C. Again intimately related to the preceding is the third defect to which we want to pay some attention. We described this defect as a lack of a sense of historical continuity. If it is true that every thought (and thus also the thoughts of God), instead of standing alone, stands as a link in a logical chain, so that when we pick a link up or let it go we at the same time pick up or let go of the entire chain, so it is with the thoughts of God, of the entire structure of theology, that constitutes a part of a historical line that reaches back from the present to the earliest times of the church. There is thus not only a logical but also a historical coherence—the latter is in fact nothing but the former as it took shape before us in time.59 The truth in its entirety lies only before the Lord God, with all its logical branches and relationships, spread out as one large domain. He sees and thinks not discursively60 but expressively under the aspect of eternity—all is in one indivisible moment present and transparent to him. For us, on the other hand, seeing61 is replaced by approaching: we do not stand in the center but at the periphery of the system, and when at the hand of God we move for a moment into the center, we cannot, with the immediate power and clarity of a creating self-consciousness, in a single moment follow all radii simultaneously, but [we must do so] step by step and line by line, continuously turning and comparing. Here the logical prius must thus automatically become a temporal prius. Furthermore, the truth of God is so powerful and full that not one single generation, let alone one single person, could master it. In the first place, [this truth] is not given to us in a system but in the multicolored multiplicity of facts and truths that God presents to us in Scripture arranged [/only/] for a practical purpose, but not as a logical organism. Even as he has in the realm of nature not written in brilliant light across the sky (in the abstract form of thought) the laws according to which he works so that the children of man would be able to read them without any difficulty, but rather has laid them out before us in the multiplicity of phenomena so that we ourselves might write and instill the book of his thoughts—thus in the realm of grace he also comes to our soul, not with a dogmatics but with a vivid62 world of salvific thoughts and salvific acts, so that we at first stammer as small children who try to express his truth; and, after seeing ever more and perceiving more clearly, we would write chapter after chapter of that book of his sacred theology. And in the second place, he does not teach us his truth only through the intellect but through overpowering63 all our life's energy; [his truth] does not pass merely with the sharpness of logical contrast through the brain of the individual, but with all the sharpness of living contrast64 through the consciousness of the church. The church lives the truth and must as it were capture it piece by piece in the continuous battle against the power(s)65 of the lie; blood and tears cling to her dogmas. From this now follows that it would not only be lack of piety, but foolish vainglory and self-overestimation if one wanted to build single-handedly a [comfortable] theological house66 without taking into account the work of previous generations. Theology is not a house but a temple of God whose dimensions are so large, the materials of which it is built so exalted, that it is like the gothic temples of the Middle Ages, in which not the idea of a single architect but the deepest life vision of generations found expression. All that we can do is contribute building blocks, and we must see it as an honor to be able to place them on the foundation that was laid by our forefathers through the concerted effort of all their spiritual powers. Only insight into this truth, only this sense of solidarity with the church of God of all centuries can teach us the truly scholarly caution and humility that are the necessary obverse of principial reflection. It creates the courage of conviction, but also the awareness of responsibility, if we want to claim for67 this conviction the name and the authority of the historic church. The historic church, and only the historic church can, vis à vis the transitory opinions of the day—especially when those opinions assert themselves with the exuberant noise and all the excessive pretensions of novelty—teach us that inestimable sense of self-worth that considers itself above entering into each [and every] old and new aberrant view. The church of God with its giant edifice of so many centuries truly stands too solidly grounded to take serious notice of every gust of wind that blows against her pillars. Although she does not claim divine authority for her pronouncements, she nevertheless knows, on the other hand, that it is not left to fate as to which dogmas she develops in succession, and that both the results she achieves and the sequence in which they present themselves to her are purified and regulated by the Spirit of God, who is the theologian par excellence. And precisely because every thought of arbitrariness is excluded here, the theological enterprise must carefully considerer what it is up to, in order that it does not waste its powers on work already done, while letting lie fallow fields as yet uncultivated. What historical nonsense it is to think that, e.g., the Christological controversies shook the church of God for nothing and caused it to vibrate down to its finest nerves, in order that we may simply substitute for the dogma of Chalcedon, for which such a high price was paid, a doctrine of kenosis or any other view on which judgment was already passed many centuries ago. Such [an approach] betrays distrust in the leading of the Spirit, i.e., doubt as to the possibility of theology in general, and thus judges itself. This does not mean that the church would not be allowed to revise and further refine its own development of dogma; all that is asserted is that she must not take jumps into a vacuum. When she reaches back, it must be a reaching back to a position taken earlier; she must at all times stay in touch with history, and the line of continuity must at no point be broken. In fact, the church has always had a deep awareness of her historic unity and has given witness to that unity in all her official pronouncements. It was not until the last century that a radical change took place. It was the revolution that with a solid tug broke that iron thread of historical continuity and attempted to develop, out of sovereign reason, independent of all that actually existed, an entirely new order of things. But the revolution was merely a practical implementation of what had (in the philosophical arena) been preached for more than a century by rationalism. The 18th century called itself, in audacious self-esteem, the philosophical and it was the conscious goal of that century to reorganize human life through philosophy. This propensity in turn owes its existence and development to the emergence and flowering of the natural sciences since the beginning of modern history.68 It is essentially the mechanical method of physics that, in spite of itself, has cultivated the aversion to the historical perspective on things. Thus nature triumphed over history. "Natural" and "reasonable" became parallel concepts. Thus came into being biblical criticism, and thus also both rationalistic and naturalistic theology, with a virtually identical aversion to historical antecedents. In the French Revolution this worldly wisdom was carried through in every area of life, and thus the break with history became itself history. Identical causes have identical consequences; when that same realistic sense of nature that led in Europe to the breaking of history is also found among us, it is superfluous to search long for the basis on which this lack of historical sense can be explained. Here also realistic rationalism has been at work, and rationalism has betrayed history and its rights. Furthermore, practical rationalism has already in the last century been transported [/transplanted/] from Europe to these regions. Nowhere did the desire to be free from all impediments, created in antiquity, to arranging life as one saw fit and in accordance with the demands of reason's ever-growing role, find greater scope than in this virginal, natural land, where nothing was found that first needed to be cleared away. Here the tabula rasa that in countries of ancient cultural heritage first had to be created by force was given by nature. Anyone who wanted to wean himself from history and ruins found here the ideal of his dreams as a reality. But was it then any wonder that under such circumstances gradually a contempt for history took root, which not only rejected its decayed and played-out institutions but also rejected her sound foundations? Thus here lies the deepest cause of what we can still see when we look around us—that imperturbable self-confidence in an elemental natural force, which thinks to be able to achieve in a short time span what centuries have labored over. [The cause also] of that naive conviction, as if in science [we find] the same possibility that exists in the area of mechanics, namely, to artificially condense into a few moments through ingenious inspirations and clever inventions69 the development that took years, so that here also the miraculous flowering might repeat itself through which our industry has amazed the nations of Europe. And that, alas! does not work in the humanities, least of all in theology! She does not allow herself to be forced, but only to be conquered gradually through love and consistent devotion. She does not allow that in coarse familiarity one takes a different position toward her than is justified by history. She rejects, affronted, him who dares to transgress the boundaries set [by history]. The only way to be honored by her and to increase in the knowledge of the rich treasure of her heart is a careful holding on to the line of historical continuity.


And what70 calling do these curious conditions demand of us? After all, we undertook this exploration not for the purpose of unprofitable critique but in order to learn to understand what this time requires of us. Were this not the case, fairness would require that over against these objections we would point also to the many important benefits that favor the flowering of American theology, whereas we can now limit ourselves to a quick enumeration. It will be sufficient to mention them to convince you that here, as always, conditions have their bright as well as their shadow side. Do we not live in a country where the relationship between Church and State is virtually to conform to the ideal that hearts that thirsted for the freedom of God's church have imagined through all ages? And behold, this glorious freedom has fallen into our lap as a peaceful gift from heaven without a drop of blood having been spilt. To be sure, the earliest history of these regions has its blemishes, it has not always been the pure expression of the spirit of ecclesiastical freedom that should have ruled according to her founding principles.71 Specifically our Presbyterian Reformed brethren have in the colonial era had to endure persecution and interference for the sake of their faith from the side of Congregationalists and Episcopalians. But we who came later, and found the seed of freedom having grown up into a proud tree, have been able to settle ourselves freely in its branches, and never—it must be acknowledged with thanksgiving to God—never has anywhere in the world greater freedom been enjoyed to serve God in accordance with his Word than in these regions. The "sphere sovereignty" after which our forefathers strove, but whose day they did not see, God has created here as a miracle, and we have been allowed to rejoice in its blessings. Here for the first time did theology find the opportunity to go its own way, without being forced, through interference from the state, into a matrix different from that which fit the law of her own life. Here the state is ordered in such a way that it is very careful not to bring moral and spiritual concerns of the people unnecessarily within its sphere, thus leaving a wide field to cultivate for voluntary association,72 but above all for the church. The entire political sphere has in this country73 only a few points of contact with the deeper, the permanent, the more sacred concerns of those who live within its circumference. Even as our central government starts from the assumption that [individual] states with justice and order already exist, thus our state governments are based on the presence of church discipline and family morals, and intervene only where these are inadequate or are not allowed to intervene. Yes, and more than that, when the question is raised as to who shall occupy this realm left vacant by the state, the Christian church or her opponents, the answer cannot be in doubt when we place ourselves on the position of moral right. The Christian church, specifically the Reformed church, can claim for herself the inalienable right of being first [in this country] historically.74 She has performed the lion's share of the work in the founding and securing of this republic. It is for all practical purposes a proven fact that the constitution of the United Stated is modeled after Presbyterian polity, with a hierarchy that moves from lower to higher. But not only in this external sense, but also in a much deeper and spiritual sense, is there affinity between our Reformed doctrine and the concept of freedom that undergirds our national life. Calvinism must, by virtue of its principia, become the origin of civil liberty wherever its influence extends. Precisely because it places all creatures on a level field of dependence and smallness at the feet of the sovereign God, it cannot tolerate despotic governments, whose power has not come down from God and is not exercised in conformity with the Word of God. The more deeply one understands the sovereignty of God and absorbs its delights, the more proudly one will hold high one's ransomed head, not only in the church of God, but also in the assembly of the country's citizens. And provided that it remains conscious of this origin in the grace of God, there is no civic virtue that sanctifies and ennobles more than the human sense of freedom of a truly Reformed character.

We do not need, however, to lay out before you these benefits in great detail, however much they may deserve it. They are, after all, of such a nature that their benefits accrue to us even without our foreknowledge and our agency. It is otherwise with the objections we discussed. For these not only require that we are clearly aware of their presence, and that we calculate their consequences, but they also impose on us the obligation to remove them or render them harmless as best we know how.


When external dangers [/difficulties/] threaten [/impede/] the development of an organism, there are two possible avenues along which we can arrive at an improvement of such an evil. The first is that we remove the harmful influences themselves, in other words, that we change the environment. Since, however, the influences and factors of which we speak here lie far beyond our reach or governance, the second avenue will probably be the only one that remains [open] to us. This avenue consist herein that we seek to strengthen the organism, and to develop its threatened functions, in such a way that they naturally expel the harmful matter and transcend the danger in a healthy flourishing of their own life force.

Every healthy system must react forcefully against disturbing influences if it is not to succumb eventually in spite of its health. And if we are concerned with self-preservation, we must not neglect for a moment to arm, through healthy nutrition and loving treatment, the threatened parts of the body of our theology against all illness-bearing germs that come to us through the atmosphere75 of our environment through the flow of time. On the basis of this requirement our theology must strive to hold high its character as ideal science over against all practical, realistic striving; continuously reflect on its principium and maintain it without weakening over against all lack of principial reflection; and protest unflaggingly against all lack of historical sense by means of a calm taking up and continuing the historical line of our forefathers.

As long as there is thirst after knowledge, after absolute truth, in the human heart, so long will, in spite of all positivistic and rationalistic inclinations [/currents/] of the time, a science be sought that satisfies this thirst. It is already lèse majesté, an attack on the sacred character of the truth, when one dares to doubt its existence, even as it is already a sin to dare to doubt the existence of God. Only through murdering or raping this deepest of all convictions, [namely] that there is an eternally valid reality that provides for our meandering, unstable souls the only place of rest for thinking and striving, only through the [/a/] searing of the scientific conscience, can we reconcile ourselves with the relative and subjective directions of our century. The foundation of the scientific disease is thus a moral disease: precisely because that healthy core of an unshakeable faith in the existence of truth has been injured, we have finally arrived76 at the point where, with her _______,77 we make do with a relative or regulative knowledge. If we truly loved [the truth], no one would long for anything less than herself. The starting point for modern science has, incidentally, been a turning away from God, a searching for truth in one's own strength, an attempt to arrive at a knowledge of the truth beginning with the creature and not through God. And since God the Lord had sovereignly reserved for himself, even as all things, also science and wisdom, and had tied them omnipotently to his own knowledge, thus a wisdom that the world wanted to know apart from God, had to devolve necessarily into foolishness and end in a major bankruptcy. It thought to be able to penetrate the essence of things, and prepared itself with proud complacency for the gigantic task, nevertheless [/then/] she experienced—as the greatest of her philosophers, Kant, stated—that in order to know things in this way it would be necessary to create those things, to bring them forth out of oneself through divine power. Thus God was given glory, it was frankly acknowledged that only he possesses true science. But it was of no avail that man grasped the last remedy that was left to extract himself from the humiliating confession of his ignorance, or that he tried to place himself once again on the throne of the self-satisfied rule of reason by the bold act of a pantheistic self-deification, thus still keeping science in the hands of God.78 The intoxication that came from storming the heaven of God's majesty, piling system upon system, each one more audacious than the last, thus idolizing man as the creator of the worldview, lasted only too briefly. An enormous reaction set in, and because even now men did not want to recognize faith in God as the true form of science, while at the same time having had their fill of the inner untruth of the pantheistic systems, the sole solution that thus remained was the third one, [namely], that the possibility of an objective science was fundamentally challenged.

Thus positivism and relativism and agnosticism emerged in an ever more rapid current. And wherever today a superficial materialism is not held to and yet the claim is made of an abstract [/absolute/] science, it happens because unawares a principium of faith is adopted and built upon. It would not be difficult to show that even in the most relativistic79 natural science [one] must in the end begin with faith if [this science] is to take even a single step forward.

We sketch this development for you in broad strokes, because it is best able to convince us of the character of theology as the ideal science. When, as has become apparent to us, the tearing away from God has brought all of modern science to despair over its own objective validity, it immediately strikes us that the true science can only be recaptured with God as our starting point and by returning to [his] voice, and that therefore pre-eminence among the sciences belongs to theology. That problem [of objective validity], which is part of all human knowing, and that has led to despairing of its possibility, is overcome in theology, and in her alone. In theology the object is not a matter [/substance/] that is stubbornly resistant, into whose essence no one can penetrate, that does not create her in the same moment, but the living God, who is transparent to himself, who actively moves outside himself, reveals himself, presents himself as object to, and in the subjects of, science. He reaches his goal in the first place because he creates this subject according to his likeness and image, in order that he might be grasped by it. The possibility of our knowledge of God rests ultimately on the fact that we have been created in God's image. We therefore must give a true, meaningful definition of God, since we find the genus of that definition in ourselves. In other words, the [possibility] of penetrating into the essence of reality, which is the hallmark of the highest [form of] science, has here come close to realization to the extent that the essence of God mirrors itself in the essence of man. God has made us according to his image, in order that we might "truly know" him, as our Catechism so aptly phrases it. Here, therefore, the two extremes—the sinful laying claim to divine knowledge [that can only come from the act] of creation [itself],80 and the sinful despairing of the possibility of true science—are equally avoided and the golden mean has been found.

But let us go on. Theology, more than any other academic discipline81, has therefore also claim to the name of science because in her, as she exists originally in God, the gulf that always exists between subject and object has vanished. This gulf is alien to the Theologia Archetypa, the patterning theology, the knowledge that God's Being has of himself, because in the simplicity of that Being all distinction between the known and the knower disappears. Now it is true that we lay no claim to possessing this Archetypal Theology; we must be satisfied with a Theologia Ectypa, a representative knowledge of God. But this also is, after all, the immediate impress of the perfect self-knowledge of God, which he presents in clear thoughts to our consciousness. Here, therefore, reality does not have to be translated into science, it is science from the beginning. Finally, it is God himself who, through his Holy Spirit himself, takes care that this impress of his own theology enters our consciousness in unadulterated form. This is why we speak wisdom among the perfect, because the Spirit of God, who also searches the deep things of God, has revealed them to us and makes us inwardly receptive to the external revelation of the Scriptures.

The development we just sketched teaches us still more. She proves that to the degree to which one lets go of God, to that degree is also the involvement of the scientific conscience smothered and the healthy sense of truth, which is the most central core of all striving after knowledge, is weakened and destroyed in us. And therefore, even as at the root of the scientific emaciation of our era lies a moral and religious maceration, thus can only as an increasing assurance82 of faith give more fullness and beauty to the forms and (shapes) of the body of our theology. All that matters is to keep awake the sense of truth, to stimulate the need for it, to make our scientific conscience ever more refined [/tender/] and sensitive. And it is far from the truth that a particular and devout life would bring about an aversion to theology and dogma. Rather, in that fervent practical piety hides the secret of the irresistible urge with which the tenderest of saints have consistently worked their way toward a clear, conscious knowledge of the ways of God. Our theology is not83 a bare theory that can be learned, but, as our fathers said, [it lies] in the84 affectus of the person, that grows only in the depths of a sanctified mind. It is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, who so grounds us in the unshakeable conviction of the reality of the divine things, and awakens such an immortal love for [this reality] in us, that we seek it with longing day and night. These words apply to theology as well as to her object : "For he that cometh to her must believe that she is, and that she is a rewarder of them that seek her" (Heb. 11:6).

When this conviction is allowed to be among us, when the church of God learns to appreciate once again that she possesses in her knowledge of theology an ideal that the world never has been able to reach, because [the world] in its foolishness did not want to know God, then this ideal will once again become full, rich reality, and the isolation of theology will come to an end. People will once again learn to live and breathe out of their dogmas and not hesitate to apply the highest and most sacred of principia in a wide range of ways in all areas. Not knowledge in books, but knowledge that penetrates life and is worked out in life, enriches life, and creates unity in life through her principium. Every theology that is based on a conflict or on a radical separation between knowing and believing, and limits her own territory through concessions to a science so-called and lets herself be pushed aside by [that science] as impractical,85 already carries at birth the seed of her death; the theology, on the other hand, that is prepared to fearlessly assert her all-encompassing claims in the public square86 and in the living room, in the school as well as in the pulpit, must and shall in every battle develop her strengths and be victorious over all opposition. Our dogmas must once again leave the classrooms and be carried into the hearts of the people, especially the hearts of a young generation, with fresh power of thought. Let us confidently place over against all noisy advertising with which so often in this country religion dishonors itself, the slow but sure power of the truth, concentrated in a clear theology. If we want to arm the church against error and ignorance, we must not so much rely on the use of all kinds of clever devices that are aimed at effect but rather fill her head and heart with the healthy, nourishing teaching of the truth [/fathers/], and this preventative will show itself to be more powerful than any other medicine [that is] administered only after the disease manifests itself.

Theology must before all things prove its viability and its reality by her growth. The truth is living, and she shows herself to be alive because she sends forth again and again new shoots from the trunk that has already grown up; no part of her may be unfruitful. But the development of our science, the fecundity of her thoughts, the harmony that unfolds in her growth and that makes her at every stage perfect, yet not finished, the urge with which she strives after broader development—all this, conversely, will guarantee her genuineness and divinity. A theology that was only a practical aid in the spread and establishment of Christianity could still be profitable and useful in case of a complete standstill, but a theology that wants to be the outworking of the knowledge of God in the church through the Spirit must never stand still, since otherwise she will [not]87 be convinced of her own genuineness. The Lord our God works till now, gentlemen,88 even as in the days of our Fathers he will send new shoots from the trunk of his theology in this era, and we have to make every effort not to be found backward in the support that he requires from humans for the furtherance of this marvelous growth. All of us, especially to the extent that we are, or hope to become, ministers of the Word, have not only a calling to expand the kingdom of God and to introduce the church to the truth already found, but we are also charged with enriching the treasure of the truth through new finds from the mine of Scripture. We have a theological calling, and that is the most glorious of all. We must go on from the standpoint to which God has brought us and where he has kept us through his grace. And that we can go on, and in fact can make progress, will be the best proof for us that we are builders, not of a clever house of human scholasticism, but of the living temple of the Truth under the leading of the Spirit.

He therefore who feels himself to be in possession and under the influence of the living truth, for whom [this truth] is not something abstract or unreal, but the complete truth, i.e., something that works and emanates power, shall automatically feel himself compelled to enunciate the principium clearly and draw its consequences fearlessly. He will receive in the first place the courage to address only his science to ask how it wants to be handled, to get out of the habit of seeking the approval of an unbelieving world, and to unfold the truth of God in contrast to [the world's] sensibilities. Or is this not precisely where the distinction lies between a dead, inorganic mass and a living organism, that the first must receive its form from outside, whereas the latter carries the law of its development within itself and, in the free unfolding of that law of life, creates a form for itself? Only that which is alive and active can be free and independent; and this is why no true theology may timidly organize itself according to, or make itself subservient to, the demand of the time or the forms of its science. We do not speak the wisdom of this world, and therefore dare not boast that by means of natural arguments we convince every doubter of the truth of our faith. We are not of the opinion that every thesis that is not in agreement with the insights of a superficial common sense must be defended by us with the same superficiality. The foundation of our theology does not lie outside but within her, not in scientific consent but in the assurance of God. The witness of the Holy Spirit to the Scriptures, through which God validates to our souls as certain and authentic that which he says in his Word concerning his Word—that is the starting point of our theology, her unprovable, self-evident principium, the rock on which she builds. And this foundation must among the Christians in this country once again be honored if there are to be better days ahead for its theology. Only then shall we be able to stem the power of unbelief when we cease to honor its blasphemies—often [supported by] highly questionable arguments—by challenging them. We are of necessity weaker than our opponent when we meet89 him in his own territory. Even if we can defend our faith with reasonable90 arguments, we must nevertheless fall short in the handling of these weapons simply because these grounds are not the grounds on which our soul is fixed and with which it is in touch. What is natural to the enemy we must be taught91 artificially, and thus the observer sees the dangerous appearance that that which we, with the entire church of God, confess, rests on the [same] weak foundation as a questionable opinion.

But also within our own sphere we will not be ashamed of our principia. Neither the mistaken notion that [the principia] are useless in practice or even dangerous, nor the fear that they would inadequately respect human freedom and responsibility, may lead us to keep silent about them.92 The sovereignty of God over his creature must be the great thought that dominates all our other thoughts. We can only walk soundly if we follow this guiding principium, since God in his Word has given us his sovereignty as the guiding principium of all his works and ways, and our theology is theocentric, that is, thinks from God as its starting point, or rather, thinks after him at a sacred distance. Even in its counterpart, the doctrine of the covenant, which emphasizes the moral responsibility and freedom of man, we can only learn to understand when, staying with God's point of view, we as it were observe and experience with him how he descends [/comes down/] from his glory to deal with us as a man deals with his brother. Thus it becomes apparent that even the relative equal status of God and us in the covenant still remains such that is colored by the idea of sovereignty, precisely because the covenant descends as it were to us from heaven through divine omnipotence—which is why it is such a glorious and precious covenant. But thus is also becomes apparent that we all through consistent application of this principium can be protected from the intrusion of the Methodistic heresy also in our view of the covenant. Not merely knowing what one believes, but also on what grounds one believes it, or better yet, to know why one holds [/believes/] this particular doctrine93 to be a necessary and indispensable member of the organism of divine truth—therein lies the safe [protection] against the adoption of alien elements. Our emotional nerves, through which we live in [the Truth] must reach from the center to the farthest periphery, so that we notice when even the least member is offended.

Nor can it be to our harm but only to our advantage when we try to develop and logically think through, on the basis of their own principium, systems that deviate from ours. Not a small-minded apologia, which balances the individual dogmas of the various systems for so long that in the end all appear to be equally heavy or light—we have need of a true historical perspective that is sufficiently fair and careful to recognize each dogma as a full-fledged part of a coherent whole, and to determine from this its meaning and significance. Reformed doctrine, whose beauty lies more than that of any other doctrine in the harmony of its form, can claim above all that its parts must be judged, not torn asunder, but as a whole that falls or stands together.

From this can be deduced to what extent we should be in agreement with the feeling that all apologetics in our school should for the time being move into the background. It is not difficult to comprehend that there are two kinds of apologetics, of which under the present circumstances the one is as objectionable as the other is indispensable. An apologetics that, while bypassing the principia, ours as well as those of the opponents, would seek to commend the content of theology as credible and reasonable, such an apologetics truly can lead to nothing. But there is also an apologetics that honors the principium. It is aimed not at those who stand outside, but at the brethren who have strayed, who have made themselves guilty of inconsistency, and unwittingly let in the enemy. Apologetics must not be abolished, it must for the time being be limited to our own sphere. It is our duty, wherever ideas are brought in that are undeniably in conflict with the starting point of our faith, to indefatigably bring this contradiction to light, so that those who have fallen in spite of themselves may see what kind of untenable position they hold. In all other cases it would be foolish to risk useless harm and discredit and to deliberately throw away the advantage on which everyone can count who in our skeptical and critical century dares to forcefully and decisively posit [the truth]. But we must constantly pay attention that such a positing does not assume the appearance of a fearfulness that is afraid of the light, but of the blessed assurance of the faith that excludes all fear. Otherwise our theology would surrender the hallmark of its scientific character and would change into an arid scholasticism. May God grant that the time is far off—indeed, that it may never come—when we are of the opinion that all of theology, spun out into its minutest details, lies before us in a series of reference books.94 A certain measure of dissatisfaction with that which lies behind, and a courageous, trusting reaching for what lies ahead, "press[ing] toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God," must be the hallmark of every theologian.

But, gentlemen—and here I approach my final comment—in spite of all this, our best efforts must be devoted to this, that we once again take up the historical line of our fathers, and do all the work that our hands find to do only in continuity with what their diligent hands did. The sad experiences that have brought about the standstill in the development of our science since that line was left will not be entirely without fruit if they have at least taught us that we cannot with impunity sever the ties of history. No independent unity is possible without sacrificing the false independence that does not want to acknowledge predecessors and trailblazers. Whoever shies away from this sacrifice and thinks that he has escaped from the power of tradition and authority because95 he exchanges the old, tried and tested teaching for the new, so much freer ideas, deceives himself in his heart. He has merely exchanged the honorable dependence96 on pious and wise predecessors in whom the grace of God shone with the unconscious dependence on an alien thought world that is97 [/with being unconsciously /caught/ in alien thought /processes/ that are] valid by dint of neither antiquity nor substance. The servant who serves a new master believes himself, after all, to be free, but he is therefore no less bound. We will also be bound when we allow ourselves to be enchanted by what is new and unusual and consider it more excellent than our ancient family possession. That which did not sprout and bloom in our circle cannot possibly bear fruit among us, but always remains an imported plant, bearing in its spiritual aridity and fragility the mark that it stems from another flora. If we want to be more than imitators and take up an independent place among the list of the nations among whom God cultivates his theology, then our starting point [/foundation/] must be a thorough familiarity with the work of our fathers. Not only what came down to us in popular form, and what remained alive in the consciousness of the children of God through all changes and decay, but also the scholarly literature, in which yet more clearly the Reformed typus is reproduced, not only what our fathers, [but] also what the Reformed churches of other countries, particularly the Scots, supplied must be investigated diligently and carefully. It must be seriously doubted whether even in our best-educated circles today the level of theological knowledge is as high as it was in the period of its flowering among the fathers. It is certain that even if we have not declined in terms of content, nevertheless the sharpness and clarity of [our] judgment and98 discernment has suffered. But if in fact we are in a slump, why would we not first go to learn from those who were our betters? But let us especially understand that this is not about knowing piecemeal what the ancients have said about one or another concrete dogma, but that knowledge of their theology means mastery of [that theology], to have entered deeply into its trains of thought, to have traced and laid bare her deepest principia, and to have modeled the methodology of those who performed the work. [This is] truly a work that requires diligence and devotion and that, no matter how attractive as a whole, is not on every point equally appealing and does not every moment bear visible fruit. We must once again endeavor to enter into the beautiful thought world instead of haltingly stating a few phrases from it. Something of the spirit of the ancients must through [this] contact also fall on us, their children; then will as it were spontaneously the light99 emerge among us that will, even where they did not precede us, nevertheless make us find infallibly the straight paths for our feet. Is it not true100 that we see here a calling set before us that should fill us with enthusiasm when we look at her sacred character and our own historical past, but that can at the same time fill us with sadness and despondency when we think of our small powers, our lack of resources, our lack of unity in these regions?101 O, if we were faithful to the sacred traditions of the faith, which we brought with us from the old fatherland as our most noble [possession], if we set ourselves unanimously, with the exertion of all our powers, to the task of preparing a home here not only for ourselves, but also for the ancient Reformed Theology, and once again restored her to a place of honor—would we not then receive our transplantation to these regions a higher consecration, and would not then the awareness that there is a work of God to be done here pervade as a refining, elevating power our entire life? And even if we were not capable of creating something new through our own, even small strength, or only of retrieving from his treasury the old in the forms of our own day, would it not be sufficient honor if we were allowed to transplant onto American soil the revitalization of the Reformed principia that took place across the ocean well nigh fifty years [ago]?102 O, when soon a younger generation shall have grown up, and when with the language barrier the greatest of the barriers shall have disappeared, that has hindered until now the penetration of American ideas among us, shall then, along with the Dutch national sense, also the spirit of the Reformed fathers depart from us, to make room in our midst for that which we see happening with regret around us? Or will then a more solid tie have been established than language and reason can create and shall, when the voice of blood ties no longer speaks, the spiritual ties with America speak, and admonish us, in the name of the Lord and out of the mouth of our brethren, that we as theologians, as Christians, must preserve the true Dutch exemplar103? There is much that would give us hope, but there are on the other hand also signs that are cause for worry. And no matter how far we may be ahead of the old fatherland materially, we cannot do without it in spiritual and theological concerns. God has done a work there through which he apparently wants to benefit and bless us; we can and must not expect that he will take us along the same route, independently of [that work], through direct intervention. Although he is omnipotent, he appears to always have worked in such a way that from one center, where he concentrates all powers, he radiates the restoration and the revitalization of his truth. And when we look at this, then it can no longer be a matter of utility, but it becomes for us a vital question, whether we maintain and exercise as long and as closely as possible the spiritual fellowship with our brethren in the Netherlands; whether a few drops of that baptism which they received might also splash over on us; or whether we recklessly and self-satisfied will go our own way and will through lack of an awareness shaped by principium commingle with the forces that are supreme here. For him who has learned to have a measure of principial perspective by going into the far reaches of the battleground, for him there can be no doubt that the battle ultimately does not involve some theological system or another, but the existence of Christianity, and that in this most awesome of all struggles, the Calvinistic elements that are spread in Europe, Africa, and America, are the last bulwark for Zion. Dividing our strength and going separate ways brings with it not merely danger for one, but for all. Let us then, who are pushed so far forward as a small spiritual colony but nevertheless stand in the middle of the battle, let us again and again through the Spirit, who knows neither distance nor time, establish ourselves in the heart of our God-consecrated history, establish ourselves, also through love and prayer, and through every communion of saints, in the brotherly heart of all who confess Christ, so that out of a high awareness of our glorious heritage and our beautiful calling we may find both courage and strength for the building of an American Reformed Theology!104


1 Maecenen. Gaius Maecenas (?70-8 B.C.), Roman politician and patron of Horace and Virgil.

2 Words in brackets and italics are the translator's insertions for the sake of clarity and/or readibility. Words in brackets are expansions.

3 The words in brackets and framed by slashes [/.../] are words written above the line as an emendation or alternative; from the nature of these emendations, it would appear that these are Vos's insertions.

4 The word used in the text is Empirialisme, which is most likely a copyist's error. The condensed version reads practh empire, with reale written above empire.

5 principieel doordenken; approximately "principled thinking through."

6 volksleven, lit. "life of the people".

7 zonder dat er op tal van aanrakingspunten voeling met dezeontstaan en uit haar bewegende kracht in hen overvloeien kan.This is an ad sensum translation.

8 verbrokkeling, lit. "crumbling."

9 bedding breken. The more common, related phrase is baan breken, i.e., blaze a trail or break new ground.

10 het rijke leven, lit. "the rich life."

11 schoon, lit. "beautiful."

12 Vos uses principia derivatively from the Latin principium, which means "foundation" or "fundamental principles."

13 kringen.

14 When Vos speaks of unity, it would appear that he has in mind an integral or organic unity.

15 oorsponkelijk, lit. "originally."

16 eenheid, lit. "unity."

17 Lit. "does not have to be."

18 levensrichting, lit. "life-orientation."

19 zichtbare en ervaarbare wereld, lit. "world that can be seen and experienced."

20 it

21 doorgravende dievenhand. This phrase is based on the Dutch Staten Vertaling: waar de dieven doorgraven en stelen; Luther: graven en stelen.

22 "that, open to invisible influences, subsides and revives": the appositional commas before and after "subsides and revives" are not in the original, but without the commas it is difficult to make sense of this sentence. With the commas, "subsiding and reviving" reflect the breathing in and out of God through the Spirit.

23 Lit. "our youthful strengths."

24 Vos uses the term evolutieleer, "doctrine of evolution," rather than evolutietheorie, theory of evolution. However, "doctrine" has religious connotations that leer does not have. "Theory" would therefore seem to be more appropriate.

25 des theologischen geloofs: "belief" refers primarily to that which is believed, "faith" to the act of believing. "Convictions" attempts to bring the two together.

26 Levensgedachte, lit. "life thought."

27 There

28 Lit. "thought mirages."

29 Hetzelve.

30 Zij mogen centraliseeren, organiseeren kunnen ze niet. Lit. "The may centralize, organize they cannot." Clearly, the translation is highly interpretive.

31 massa der dingen: "mass of things." The point here is quantity.

32 gedeorganiseerde wereld, lit. "disorganized world." This is not merely a world that is poorly organized but rather a world that has lost its organic wholeness (see note 30).

33 Van uit het leven, lit. "from life."

34 Wetenschap. The translation of wetenschap is at times a problem. In English, "science" without a qualifier refers to the "hard" sciences. By contrast, wetenschap encompasses both the hard and the soft (social) sciences. "Disciplines" would seem to resolve this problem.

35 Omitted de wetenschap des geloofs, lit. "the science of faith."

36 Plerophorie.

37 In de eenheid van het woord, lit. "In the unity of the word."

38 vervalscht, lit. "falsified" or "forged".

39 ten onzent.

40 handtastelijks en handvullends [?].

41 It would appear that the word niet, "not," was inadvertently omitted in the manuscript.

42 The ms. appears to read Zoodaat, which may be a misspelling of zoodat.

43 menigvuldigheid van den arbeid.

44 stukken.

45 thinking through the implications of [our] principia: lit., "principial thinking through" (principieel doordenken). I have translated this phrase elsewhere "principial reflection."

46 This is true in Dutch and in French (la pensée), but not in, e.g., German (masculine: der Gedanke). "Idea" is feminine in French and German (la idée, die Idee). In Dutch "idea" is neuter (het idee), except when it is used in the philosophical sense, when it is feminine (de idee).

47 Vos inserts here "M.T.," probably an abbreviated form of address similar to "M.H.," Mijne Heeren (Gentlemen). "M.T." could possibly mean Mijne [Heeren] Theologen.

48 The Dutch reads En niet alleen dat elke gedachte…, "Not only is every thought…" This appears to be an error, since the rest of the sentence does not continue this construction.

49 The text has were, which is the subjunctive of weren, "to resist, keep out." This would appear to be either a misspelling of weer, "keep out," but more likely of wee, "woe." Above the line is added eere, "honor," which is contrary to the meaning of the sentence.

50 Copyist's duplication error: van dit van dit.

51 Principieel doordenken. Lit, "principial thinking-through."

52 Lit. "with which only a judgment long since not used to synthesis, can be satisfied."

53 Lit. "old."

54 strict.

55 "Fanaticism ... principia": beginseldrijverij.

56 It appears that a word has dropped out here. The ms. reads Het is echter geenszins haar bestaan van de ware …. I have inserted the conjecture moeilijk after geenszins.

57 Ms. reads theoloog, "theologian," which is masculine in Dutch. Since in the sentences that follow Vos uses consistently the feminine possessive haar or hare, the antecedent must be "theology," which is feminine. Hence the emendation to "theology."

58 Rotssteen, archaic for "rock." Vos's metaphor appears to be mixed unless he refers to bedrock here.

59 Rather free. Lit. "as it developed in the form of time before us."

60 Discussief.

61 The ms. has doordenken, "thinking through," which would appear be an error, since it makes no clear sense in the context. The sentence becomes clear if doordenken is emended to overzien or, less likely, doorzien.

62 Aanschouwelijk.

63 A word te appears to have been omitted in the ms.: van ons leven te overweldigen.

64 levenscontrast.

65 macht(en).

66 huisje, lit. "small house." The diminutive has a mild connotation of coziness, comfort.

67 dekken, lit. "cover."

68 Lit. "the new history."

69 Ms: uitvingen instead of uitvindingen.

70 Vos inserts here "M.T.," probably an abbreviated form of address similar to "M.H.," Mijne Heeren .

71 founding principles: uitgangen.

72 Lit. "voluntary organization."

73 "in this country," lit. "with us."

74 het oudste historische bestaan.

75 Lit. "air."

76 er omitted in ms.: is men er tenslotte toe gekomen.

77 In the ms., there is a blank space here. The same blank space is also found in the "shorthand" version.

78 This sentence is not clear as written in the manuscript. I have read behouden ("keep") for houden ("hold").

79 Lit. "relative."

80 "knowledge [that can only come from the act] of creation [itself]": lit. "creation-knowledge" (scheppingskennis).

81 "academic discipline," lit. "knowledge" (kennis).89 "meet" (ontmoet) is an emendation. The ms. reads ontwoeld, which neither in form nor meaning makes sense here.

82 "assurance": plerophorie.

83 "Not" is missing in the ms.

84 "in the" is missing in the ms.

85 Error in ms.: oppractisch.

86 markt des publieken levens.

87 The insertion of "not" is conjecture; without it the last part of the sentence would appear to be unclear.

88 M.H: Mijne Heeren.

89 "meet" (ontmoet) isan emendation. The ms. reads ontwoeld, which neither in form nor meaning makes sense here.

90 Ms. reads zedelijke ("moral," "ethical"); I have amended this to redelijke, "reasonable."

91 The ms. reads en geluwd, which in the context is nonsense. Above the line is written geleerd, "taught."

92 The antecedent of "they" and "them" in this sentence is principia. The ms. has the singular "it."

93 Lit. "item," "piece" (stuk).

94 handboeken.

95 Ms. reads waar, "where." In the context daar ("because") would seem preferable.

96 dienstbaarheid: "servitude." Above the line is written afhankelijkheid van, "dependence on."

97 In this sentence several words are written above the text. With these insertions the phrase "with the unconscious dependence on an alien thought world that is valid" becomes "with being unconsciously /caught/ in alien thought /processes/ that are valid."

98 Lit. "of."

99 The ms. appears to read takt, which is incorrect. This is likely a misreading of licht.

100 Ms. reads M.T. after "true".

101 landen, "lands."

102 geleden is missing in ms.

103 typus.

104 The words Amerikaansche Gerefeormeerde Theologie! are written larger in the ms.