Foppe On Being Reformed In America (Part 1)

This series is a transcription of an article published originally in Dutch by the Christian Reformed theologian Foppe Ten Hoor (1855–1934), who was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and professor of Systematic Theology, from 1900–24, at what became Calvin Theological Seminary. He was born in Friesland, the Netherlands and educated at the Theological School of Kampen. He began and conducted his ministry in the Netherlands until he was called to Oakdale Park CRC in Grand Rapids, which he served from 1896–1900, when he took the chair of systematic theology at the theological school of the CRC.

The following essay, “Our Theological School In Relation to the American World,” was originally translated by George Stob and published in The Reformed Journal (September, 1951), 4–7. This essay was originally published in De Wachter (April 17, 1901). According to Stob’s editorial note, the material in quotation marks indicates that it is a direct translation. That which is not in quotation marks is paraphrased (HT: Aaron De Boer).

The American world scarcely knows that our School exists. And how small she is in comparison with that great American world! Nonetheless, she may even so have great significance for this world. . . If only our School allows herself to be used of Christ. she will be large factor in this land. . . God chooses the small and the weak, because he is able through them to magnify his power.”

“. . . We dare to speak of our small School in relation to this American world. Our School, though small, is nonetheless also in this American world, and as such belongs to that world. She may not stand by herself in detached isolation, but must live in relation to this world.

The Dangers, Peculiar to the American World, Which Menace Our School

The immigrant Church and School must become American by living into and become part of America. This has its perils for our School. For we are beset by the dangers of externalism, superficiality, and reduction to characterlessness. “The American world makes more of number than of weight.” In matters of education, “the quality of one’s learning” is measured by “the number of class-hours he has to his credit.” This spirit “threatens the respectability and the soundness of our School.”

In America, “people place more emphasis on the multa (many in numbers and extent) than on the multum (much in quality and substance), more emphasis upon study in wide scope, less upon penetration into the depths. People like to know many things, a bit about everything, but little attention is given to the organic relation of the several things, or to the root, the baisc principle out of which they come. The American world is fond of wide knowledge, but cares little about real learning. It does not go for principles.

It is on this score that we need to be careful. For “if we do not recognize how our knowledge stands related to principles, we can fall into all manner of error without even being aware of it. Whoever is not more or less principially Reformed, can become at any time unReformed. In that case continuing membership in a Reformed Church depends merely on circumstance. Let a ‘smart man’ come along and commend something else in an attractive way to these superficial souls, and they sometimes suddenly reverse direction and turn away. The native Dutch conservatism is at first something of a restraint, but this, too, eventually wears off in the American environment, and therefore cannot protect us against this danger.

Our Theological School must, therefore, guard against this danger of superficiality, which results in the dilution of our principles and the loss of the reformed character of our theology. In view of this, we are tempted “to withdraw ourselves from the influence of the American world. And just on that account, we are menaced by. . . the very opposite peril, namely, that of isolating ourselves from the American world. And to shut ourselves out from the life, which surrounds us would result in our becoming petrified. If our School is going to crawl off in a corner and separate herself from the American world, she has no future, and may be written down for dead.”

“It is true that temporary isolation is in a certain sense, legitimate and necessary. The peril is only this—that we should set up this, isolation, this separation, as an end. Our School needs a period of time in which to develop to that measure of scholarly strength which will enable her to participate worthily in the theological struggle, and to cooperate toward the development of a theology in the American world.”

To fulfill our calling in this respect is a large task. This means, for one thing, that we must “enter again into the rich, broad, and deep reformed theology of the 16th and 17th centuries,” the more so since there was no real development in Reformed theology during the 150 years prior to 1850. “Our traditional Reformed theology must first be taken up again into our consciousness, and be vitalized by us, before we can bring it into the American world.” And the discharge of our calling requires, further, that “our school must. . . orientate herself to the field of American theology, so that she may know how she is eventually to take her place in it.”

“Isolation, therefore, may not become her goal. If it did, our School would wither and petrify, and she would in the course of time become an antique in this new world. In that case, our school could not be used by the Holy Spirit for the further unfolding of the riches of truth, given to us in the Holy Scriptures. To accomplish that she must enter into contact with the American world—not only with the positive, but also with the negative tendencies that prevail here. In fact, the history of theology clearly teaches that the development of theology has gotten stimulus largely from heretical movements. That will also be the pattern for the future in this American world. . .”

The Claims Which This American World Makes Upon Our School

Every nation has its own peculiar genius. The Church and the theology which develops in a given nation, shows the characteristics of that national type. Since we are in America, our theology will be conditioned by the demands made upon us by our American world. [What Ten Hoor means to point out is that theology is not merely a system of logical abstractions. It is related to life, and our theology will be conditioned in its form, its temper, its emphasis, by the living environment, by which it is influenced, and to which it responds. We notice these differences even in parts of Scripture, and speak, e.g., of Matthew, as the Gospel for the tradition-worshiping Jews, of Mark as the gospel for the heroic Romans, and of Luke as the gospel for the humanitarian Greeks. Each gospel is basically the same as the other gospel. So, too, Calvinism is basically the same everywhere. Yeah we recognize a distinctively Dutch or Scotch or French Calvinism. So, too, there must, and there will be an American Calvinism.—GS]

“The American world places before our school, a negative and a positive claim; a prohibition and a commandment, if we may say.” Americans have no flair for and no patience with the theoretical and philosophical. The genius of America is its concern for the practical. “The American world wants to know whether it pays…whether a thing has significance for practice, whether a thing is profitable for one’s living.” Thence the negative claim that America makes upon us. “It demands that we shall abstain from all one-sided objectivism and intellectualism and metaphysical speculation.”

The characteristic of Reformed theology is that “it is in principle and aim objective, and this is evidence of its truth and at the same time of its worth. It begins with God and ends in God. It finds its starting point and its final end in God…With that it stands or falls. The first principle and the final goal of theology do not lie in man.”


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    Foppe Ten Hoor (1855–1934) was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and professor of Systematic Theology at what became Calvin Theological Seminary from 1900–24. He was born in Friesland, the Netherlands and educated at the Theological School of Kampen. He began and conducted his ministry in the Netherlands until he was called to Oakdale Park CRC in Grand Rapids, which he served from 1896–1900, when he took the chair of systematic theology at the theological school of the CRC. Read more»

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