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The Reformed Journal

By February 17, 2012 No Comments

Pardon me for being late with my post today, but I wanted to wait for the event that’s the subject of my reflections.

This afternoon I helped host a gathering to mark the launch of The Best of The Reformed Journal, which was published a couple months ago as part of the centennial of the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. I co-edited the volume with my colleague emeritus in the Calvin College History Department, Ronald Wells, but we decided we should wait for the rush of the new semester to be over before formally marking the book’s debut.

So now I have three institutions on the table and you might be wondering how they belong together. And how they fit under the a blog associated with still another entity, Perspectives magazine, which is subsidized by yet another institution, the Reformed Church in America. Some of you know the windings of this particular network, but for those who don’t, here it is. Perspectives is the descendant of the Reformed Journal, which was published for its entire 40-year run (1951-1990) by Eerdmans, but drew most of its writers and editorial board—especially in its first twenty-five years—from faculty at Calvin College and Seminary.

As speakers at today’s little fete observed, the Journal gave the college and seminary a window onto the world, there to spread such light as they could. It gave new faculty at these schools a base where they could try out their publishing wings, and a place where they could periodically return to translate some of their formal academic training into direct speech on the issues of the day. In return, the magazine served to introduce serious Christian readers to a body of work that spoke month to month across a wide range of fields and topics from a consistently, if non-dogmatically, Reformed point of view. Especially in its “As We See It” leader, the RJ functioned as a Reformed blog before blogging was possible. The testimonials this afternoon were clear: the Journal gave bright kids coming up in the Dutch Reformed network in the US some fresh insights onto the wider world—even more, gave an example, kindled the hope, that “Reformed” meant something more than the stodgy constrictions in which they had been raised. The Journal also gave some mainline scoffers proof positive that robust theological, political, and cultural commentary could come from that side of the world which they discounted as “evangelical.”

Few people recall that the Journal originally was itself something of a complement, or successor, to another publication, The Calvin Forum, which first appeared in 2315 from the same campus and with a similar range, audience, and perspective in mind. The RJ therefore, and Perspectives magazine which succeeds it, represent over three-quarters of a century of commentary and reflection on Christian theology, arts and letters, national and world affairs, with a deliberate and distinctive religious program. The program is to harvest an old theological tradition for fresh insights on the current scene, faithful to Scripture but not bound by the usual shibboleths that control its tongue; biblical but progressive; faithfully venturesome; twirling a bit the kaleidoscope of settled opinion; finding new hope in old things, and old truth in fresh things.

In that sense these magazines carry on a venture launched by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Calvinist politician and theologian—but above all journalist—who availed himself of changes in Dutch national law in the early 1870s to launch one of that nation’s first mass-circulation newspapers. He kept at it, seven days a week, from 1872 until just before his death in 1920. Kuyper’s example inspired the founders of the Calvin Forum–also of the Reformed Journal. That spirit of Reformed engagement with public life and cultural developments, drawing off the wells of Scripture, thus lives on in very different voices—in utterances with which Kuyper himself would sometimes disagree, but whose animation he would surely recognize—in this blog and the magazine which plays its host.

As the world of print journalism whirls and twirls in increasingly trying circles, as visual communication relocates and reconstructs itself with every new technology, as the world of words electronically disseminated evolves who knows where, it is helpful—maybe even comforting—to look back once in a while on our lines of descent, and of anchorage. Such was the occasion this afternoon at our little book party. Lots of grey hair in the room, lots of memories, lots of laughter over the outsized personalities who held forth in the little magazine that the RJ was. But some readings, too, from a book whose quality of prose and acute angles of vision can still provoke revelation—and confidence for the future. Confidence that this tradition can and will live on in whatever venue, at whosever hand.

Buy the book to give yourself examples of what can be done. Just $20 for a host of gems.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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