What I Owe to Hoedemaker

A. A. van Ruler

This article was published in the Hervormde Weekblad [Reformed Weekly] on September 25th, 1969.

It is with Hoedemaker, in the circle of the confessionals in the national Reformed church, a curious case. For ten years he shot through the atmosphere of the Confessional Union[1] like a comet. But then suddenly he was gone as well.

Where was he then? Was he solitary? The voice of one crying in the wilderness? A seer bewildered by his visions? A misunderstood thinker? A chaoticist, confused in his own contradictory deliberations? A turntable, on which no position could be established? Or did he stand and act in the wide spaces of the kingdom of God, of the world as the kingdom of God in the two forms of church and state?

Hoedemaker himself broke with the confessionals. At least with the Confessional Union. In doing so, he exhibits a most curious cramp, rare in the mental history of mankind. It is the cramp to rise above partisanship by hook or by crook. All partisanship, however well intentioned, he experienced as diabolical and pernicious deception. We must live in the truth! That is the true reality – as it is ruled by Christ!

Was the breach reciprocal? Did the confessionals in turn also break with him? This too is a most remarkable fact in history: they never broke with him. At least, never openly and never fully. In fact, to this day they have continued to regard him as one of their own, yes, as the greatest among them, as the one who most deeply expressed what they all meant. That lends something peculiar to the position of the confessionals. It is at the same time their strength. They refer to the church herself, to her being, to her as a mystical reality in history. That makes their position impregnable. In principle, therefore, the confessionals are always right.

Hoedemaker saw reality and grasped it as intended by God. The world as the kingdom of God! Yes, but the kingdom of God in His suffering form. It is broken in the messiah, who is the mediator. The whole is centered on the atonement, in which evil is borne and covered – until the last judgment. Hence the painful duality of church and state. Hence that emphasis on the civil government and the ministerial church as the two powers, instituted by God, through which the life of men is arranged in their society. Authority is the form of love, by which it enters into the lost and depraved reality of man. Only when church and state are united in the Word of God can peace and justice flourish.

Is this romanticism? Is it idealism? Is it simply an outdated conception of things from centuries long gone? One must be little moved by the problems posed by the mysteries of sin and atonement to dismiss such judgments of Hoedemaker’s. Or one must have let the unity of life fall apart into fragments, and feel, experience and imagine things in terms of a profound dualism.

Both times one understands nothing of Hoedemaker. He both grasped at the unity of life and respected to the last the rift of sin and reconciliation therein. Therefore, it is better to speak of a prophetic probing and fathoming of reality all the way up to God. What moves Hoedemaker to his notions and behaviors is nothing less than a final sense of reality – in the context of the gospel and Christian faith.

With one word, therefore, I could summarize what I owe to Hoedemaker. It is the sense of catholicity. That means, first of all, that Hoedemaker never locked himself into Protestantism. He did not pretend that the church only began with Luther. He always stated very emphatically that the word “reformed” (reformatus) was his nickname (cognomen) and the word “Christian” (christianus) was his proper name (nomen). He therefore saw the Reformation of the sixteenth century as a moment in the tradition of catholicity, and looked forward to a council with regard to the relationship to Rome (the real Rome, not the court of Rome), where the controversy would be rehashed once again.

In other words, the universally Christian was always on his mind. He understood everything catholic in a reformed way, but then, conversely, everything reformed in a catholic way. All the stuffiness and narrowness and then also all the self-conceit and high-handedness so characteristic of Protestant Christians and theologians were foreign to him. He thought in terms of centuries and continents.

Hence also this tremendous stroke: it is about the apostolic gospel and national theology. As an expression of pure catholicity, this is a sentiment preceding and dominating everything: that one realizes one owes everything to the apostles. They went out to the peoples of the earth with the message of salvation that had appeared in Israel. What is it that strikes one with more wonder: the fact that we gentiles, we Germans, have to live by the apostolic story of what happened among the Jews, or the content of that story, namely, that there is total redemption of total reality out of total lostness? With Hoedemaker one never knows which of these two possibilities he experienced most deeply. But he summarized both in the term “the apostolic gospel.”

It is the gospel, that is, a message – with all the irreducibility of the factuality of which it recounts. Opposed to this is theology. It is quite different from the gospel. It is the thoughtful processing of it. And not only that. Theology is not limited to the gospel. From the gospel, more broadly: from the written Word of God falls a light, so great, that by that light reason can begin to examine the whole of created reality and also to think. Here looms the great vision not only of a public school with the Bible, but also of a state university with the Bible. Through national theology, the apostolic gospel becomes the perimeter of Christian science, and conversely, science is only possible in the long run with the presuppositions of Christian faith. Hoedemaker wanted a comprehensive cultural synthesis. That too pertains to catholicity.

Theology, the thoughtful processing of the gospel and – in its light – of all reality, bears by definition a national character. The light of the apostolic gospel breaks down into the prism of the many peoples and races. Everywhere it takes on another hue. It enters into a connection with the people’s soul and with the race’s soul. So much does the gospel extend to all moments of reality. Out of pure catholicity, theology, the church likewise is national. Therefore, neither does this national character detract from the international, the supra-Christian faith. In love, all national churches find each other with a self-evidentness that is moving. They differ among themselves in profound ways. But they recognize one another in Christ, in whom all the gifts and treasures of divine wisdom are summed up. Catholicity, then, is not an abstract and empty concept. It is concrete and filled – full of all national peculiarities.

To this picture of catholicity must be added another extremely important trait. The apostles go out to the peoples of the earth. They enter among them with the gospel of the kingdom! That is what it is about: about the kingdom of God! About the world as the kingdom of God. In Christ and in His accomplished work, this kingdom gained a foothold on the earth. It thus also received the broken form of the mediator. But the gospel remains the gospel of the kingdom. That is more comprehensive than the gospel of Christ. With that gospel, the apostles appear among the peoples in order to work there the obedience of faith and thus make the historical process into a liturgy, in which the peoples – in their political, social and cultural life as well – are poured out as a sacrifice pleasing to God. Thus, Christ is the (militant) Lord of the world.

A fundamental point here is that the apostles stand thus primarily on the field of history. They are not primarily a piece of the church. Therefore, their ministry is not a ministry in the church, but in the kingdom. This insight is fundamental to the whole doctrine concerning the church. The true successors of the apostles are first the missionaries and then the ministers of the Word, elders and deacons. They stick to that historical and that eschatological of the apostles: they stand on the field of history and serve in the kingdom. The believing and professing, the preaching and liturgical church is built around them and remains focused in all its fibers on the world as the kingdom of God. Only in the presbyterian-synodal system of church law is the apostleship – and thus both the gospel and the church – kept pure.

Against this background, the idea of the people’s church, for which Hoedemaker fought so passionately, also becomes clear. The church as such is either people’s church or it is no church at all. This does not mean that the church includes all members of the people. Much less does it mean that everything that ferments in the religious life of the people ferments in the church. What matters is the apostolic gospel. It seeks to touch, transform and permeate all aspects of life from the basis of salvation in Christ, so that all life is reborn into the kingdom of God. In so doing, salvation enters into existence in such a way that it takes on the color of its surroundings. Even if at a good (or rather, a bad) moment the church consists of only a few people, it can want nothing more than to be a people’s church in this sense. After all it is – in the church – about the gospel of the kingdom and the obedience of faith among the Gentiles, for the sake of the Name! So a reduced church will have to be passionately loved and accepted out of full conviction. Even a church that suffers a tremendous loss of function. One should not flee in such situations into solidarity, into the incognito, into anonymous Christianity or into the idea that the historical process is in itself the process of liberation and thus the process of salvation. The core of the apostolic gospel lies in this, that the kingdom is concentrated in the name. This name wishes to be proclaimed and confessed. However small and insignificant the church may have become, it is and remains the people’s church: it alone knows the mystery of the world, namely that it is destined to be redeemed into the kingdom.

In this framework – the kingdom, the mediator, the apostleship, the field of history, the nations, the popular church – Hoedemaker put all his thoughts. Using a modern term, the whole thing can be summarized to mean that he gave a worldly interpretation of biblical concepts. He was purely concerned with the full earthly life as the service of God. He was concerned – all things considered – with theocracy. That is the great thing about him: he could not think any Christian thought without the question, what does it mean politically, what does it mean for the state. One calls today (it is the latest buzzword) for a political theology. Hoedemaker has been calling for that for a century – but he is laughed at.

Does “worldly interpretation” necessarily mean “non-religious interpretation”? Let’s assume for a moment that religion is sin. Even then, we must remember that sin is a reality, even an enormous one. It must be dealt with. It itself must be reconciled. And man must be delivered from it. Without confession of guilt and without confession of faith we will not get there! We need religion, including the gospel as a religion, precisely because there are sinners. That is why for Hoedemaker the gospel as the gospel of reconciliation was the heart of the matter. Not that that is what it is all about. It is about the kingdom and therefore about secular life. But it does revolve around that. If sin is not atoned for, the kingdom becomes impossible. The religious issue – how can I exist as a sinner? – is the heart of the matter.

But even leaving that aside, isn’t today’s opposition to religion childish and silly? Is not the pinnacle of humanity in liturgy, especially in praise? And is not liturgy the core, the very essence of religion, worship? Isn’t full existence only when, stepping out of oneself, one, communally, steps before the Creator and Redeemer and sings a psalm to His praise? Then one rises above all labor and play, yes above politics. One is then – what else can it be called? – in religion. Only in this way does one experience secular life in its total coherence. Without liturgy it shrivels up to oppressive bourgeoisness.

Did Hoedemaker think enough about that? Did he have a sense of the liturgy? It is doubtful. Was not preaching to him the one and only thing, at least the quintessential thing in the church service? Did he see that not only does something come from God to men, but also something from men to God? By no means can it be said of the confessionals that they learned from Hoedemaker regard for the great significance of the liturgy.

Parallel to this issue of “preaching and liturgy” is the issue of “ministry and congregation.” For the ministry in the church, Hoedemaker had a surprisingly deep and original interest. In that respect we can learn almost everything from him. But did he also have sufficient attention to the congregational dimension in the church? Did he see that it belongs to the structure of the Christian religion, that the authority of the ministry is realized, among other things, in the form of conversation (home visitation!) and then also in the form of contradiction and struggle? Does he sufficiently address the church member? One may doubt it. In any case, he does not discuss it much.

There is another parallel of the issue. I am thinking of the relationship of government and people. Did Hoedemaker have sufficient regard for the position of the people, the subject, the citizen? Did he have room for representation of the people in government? One can really doubt that. He elaborated his theocratic concept with admirable tenacity, at least outlined it in charcoal strokes. But about the idea of parliamentary democracy, he somewhat light-heartedly made only a few jokes. In parliamentary democracy – so he says – the government is like the donkey in the zoo which is ridden by turns, or like the skittles boy who puts the skittles back up when the parties have knocked them over, or like the weather vane on the tower that turns with every wind.[2] This witty critique of democracy is of fundamental significance. In this respect too, especially in our time, we can learn a lot from Hoedemaker. But I maintain that there is nevertheless a serious flaw in his life’s work because he suffices with this grim joke. Surely, in the Christian religion, man’s position vis-à-vis God is such that not only does God rule man, but man stirs together in the porridge of God’s rule. “God rules the world through the prayers of His saints.” With this maxim of Gunning, Hoedemaker must have agreed. But he did not draw political conclusions from it. Had he done so, he would have made an effort to incorporate the idea of democracy into his theocratic concept. However, most theologians and Christians today do not have the slightest right to speak on this point. They swear by democracy. But about theocracy they do not even ponder. In so doing, they plainly forsake their Christian duty.

[1] Translator’s note: The Confessional Union (Confessionele Vereniging) was an association composed of church members in the national church who wished to restored the Belgic Confession of Faith to its proper place as touchstone of orthodoxy. Although at Hoedemaker’s instigation it came to profess the need to remove the administrative boards which ruled the church, in order to replace them with presbyterian extended assemblies, its members rather tended to accept the role of a party within the church rather than a force insisting on the reform of church order. This led Hoedemaker to resign his position in the Union in 1897.

[2] Translator’s note: This is not really what Hoedemaker said. He argued that in a secular society with a supposedly neutral state, the government merely reflects the religious opinion of the party or parties in power, and thus acts like a beast to be ridden, or as the pinboy who sets the bowling pins back up. It is not a critique of democracy per se that Hoedemaker has in mind here, but a critique of secular democracy.