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Quo Vadis promo still, 1951

I’m on the road again and so have to write this the day before the midterm elections even though it will be posted two days after. Probably best, then, not to prognosticate, and to save post-mortems (or post-vitae?) for the future. Instead, and taking a cue from Rebecca Koerselman’s post this week, I’m going to draw back for some historical perspective—specifically, some of the history behind The Twelve and its parent magazine, Perspectives. We’re going to have to dive a bit into the weeds of Christian Reformed history to get there, but I’ll try to make it worth it.

You might have heard that Perspectives is changing its name to the Reformed Journal—changing its name back to the Reformed Journal, you might say. Perspectives was a free-standing journal in Reformed Church in America circles in 1991 when it (take your pick) merged with or took over the RJ. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company had supported the RJ with significant in-house services from the magazine’s birth in 1951, but in the changing publishing landscape of 1990 the company decided to focus entirely on its book business. Without Eerdmans’ continuing role, the RJ could not carry on.

Thus ended a 40-year run in which the Reformed Journal sounded a small but truly significant voice on the spectrum of Christian commentary and opinion in the United States. Perspectives, and The Twelve, would like to play that role again—once again, in a dramatically changing media world. The technical details about how that will happen, with platforms and venues and such, will be released soon by people who (unlike myself) actually understand them. For now, some historical work.

The Reformed Journal debuted as the progressive organ amid (yet another bout of) polemical strife in the Christian Reformed Church. The early 1950s saw a battle-royal at Calvin Theological Seminary over the suspected “Barthianism” of some new members on its faculty. That specter was a stalking horse for grave concerns, or brave hopes, about what the rising generation augured for denominational affairs. Into the fray entered two competing magazines: the progressives’ RJ and the conservatives’ Torch and Trumpet. The denomination’s official periodical, the Banner, was entirely in conservative hands but had to make gestures toward being a home for all people. Torch and Trumpet—or “Glow and Blow,” as its opponents dubbed it—was meant to fight for the Right without let or pretense.

The “Seminary Situation” itself was soon resolved by a purge of virtually the entire CTS faculty and their replacement by careful moderates who knew how to get along. The rival magazines carried on the struggle over new issues, or old. Torch and Trumpet fought what became more and more a rearguard battle to stem the tides of change in the denomination, but churchy and polemical it remained—on matters theological, hermeneutical, ethical, and ecclesiastical. It faded away after twenty years. The RJ, by contrast, gradually broadened out from its Christian Reformed base to make connections with Northern Evangelical Protestants and more global concerns (especially South African and Palestinian), keeping up commentary on Roman Catholic developments the while. Its stable of writers broadened accordingly, although it remained resolutely male until the 1980s.

The Journal also engaged with social and cultural issues beyond church life strictly speaking, not least because its writers knew how much the former affected the latter. Torch and Trumpet did the same, if less regularly, even while accusing the Journal of promoting “politics” at the risk of spiritual purity. Things could hardly be otherwise; after all, 1951 also marked the heyday of McCarthyism. T&T’s politics were those of Taft and Goldwater Republicanism with more than a dollop of McCarthy. The RJ’s ranged from the now-extinct moderate Republicanism of Eisenhower and Rockefeller to New Deal Democracy. The RJ ran film reviews; T&T’s editor literally wept when the CRC Synod gave guarded permission for movie-going. The RJ crusaded against South African apartheid, which its opponents deemed the last bastion against the continent’s fall to Communism. The RJ—first, very carefully, then over time with fuller throat—endorsed the Civil Rights movement in the US; the opposition condemned the same as “law-breaking” on the part of dangerous elements that threatened the ruin of American society. The RJ started to ask questions about, then express opposition to, the American war in Vietnam; its critics regarded this as defiance of God’s express command in Romans 13, hopeless naivete about Communism’s global aggression, and a horrible betrayal of “our boys” besides. Etc.

The RJ had its own cultural entanglements. Its founders included World War II veterans who harbored a hopeful, benevolent form of American civil religion, the sort that had defeated fascist totalitarianism abroad and now hoped to realize the better promise of America at home. This reflex could spill over into paeans to the wisdom—and borderline Christianity—of the Founding Fathers. Its pages could condemn the John Birch Society in one issue and extol the virtues of J. Edgar Hoover in the next. It took Vietnam to shake all that out.

It also took some time to sort out its relationship with the New Evangelicalism that had emerged in the 1960s. The brand associated with Carl Henry and Christianity Today, Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, it accorded 1.5 to 2 cheers. But this school was overtaken by Evangelicalism of another stripe, the type espoused by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, by Franklin Graham instead of Billy: Southern, populist, militant and militaristic, barely hiding its Fundamentalist heart behind an “evangelical” guise. The RJ looked at this phenomenon with some bemusement and periodic attempts to explain and gently critique it, in hopes that the rough new kids on the block would either develop better manners or fade away. They never did.

But these were glitches in the Reformed Journal’s main mission: (1) to offer readers who were content with neither the Evangelicals’ Christianity Today nor the progressive mainline’s Christian Century an intermediate space in which (2) to engage the issues of the day—social, political, and cultural as well as religious—from a viewpoint deeply informed by classic Reformed theology; a space that also (3) allowed for exploration in more detail and depth than popular venues allowed but was more accessible to the proverbial generally educated reader than was technical scholarly writing. This mission the RJ accomplished, year in and year out, for four decades. Readers found in it fresh thinking, hope for a critical Christian engagement with the ambient culture  or with their own with tradition, or both. Its readers were never legion but occupied some crucial niches: budding CRC and RCA scholars needing a faithful example during the throes of graduate school; pastors looking for a broader and deeper view amid the toils of parish routine; socially concerned laity needing some guidance or inspiration—or a mark to push back against.

All this is still needed today—arguably, needed more than ever. The internet and social media have multiplied potential sources of this nutriment but have scattered them as well. The new Reformed Journal, with The Twelve as one of its outlets, hopes to place in this mix a link to a stalwart past that might help open up a worthy path going forward. We hope you’ll stayed tuned for updates about this new venture, and spread the news abroad.

Meanwhile, if you’d like a taste of the old RJ, you can order up the “best of” anthology that my friend and colleague, Ron Wells, and I compiled a number of years ago. There’s some dandy writing in there, some openings into the past, and some startling mirrors of the present. Happy reading!

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. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

16 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    With John Timmerman’s wonderful writing on baseball. It was from the Reformed Journal that I learned about the Belhar Confession, which led me to introduce it to the RCA General Synod in 1985. Thanks for this, and for the challenge.

  • Sharon Etheridge says:

    Thanks for this little bit of history.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    The RJ and later Perspectives have given me a place to write about the integration of faith and learning in economics that is just not available elsewhere. The journal Faith and Economics, put out by the Association of Christian Economists, is more interested in the weedier technical and methodological issues, and has a rather consistently conservative readership. A lot of them don’t understand Reformed theology much. The “social economics” journals come out of a predominantly Catholic community, with not much understanding of Reformed. They are more progressive, but less overtly religious. Which has left me with the good old RJ. If it were not here, somebody would have to invent it. I only wish that the average RJ reader were more interested in economics. Or alternatively, that more people interested in economics read the RJ.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      I assure you there are at least a few readers here who are interested in economics and how it integrates into a Reformed Christian Worldview.

      • George E says:

        Assuming that it does.

        • John Tiemstra says:

          I’m quite sure it does. All our thought should be informed by our Christian faith. A quick look at my CV shows 17 publications in the RJ and Perspectives, the first in 1979 and the latest in 2017, so I’ve tried to make work of it. Now, it’s not the conventional stuff you get in textbooks, but it’s still economics.

  • June A. Huissen says:

    Thank you again my friend for another reminder of our history. I could tell you a few stories of arguments in my living room between the two factions. And thank you for giving me the “best of book” a few years ago. So appreciated.

  • Mark Bennink says:

    Thanks for sharing this history. My father-in-law, Milton Essenburg, helped with the editing of the RJ as an editor for Eerdman’s in its heyday. Thank you for again sharing the unique voice of the Reformed Journal to the church and global internet community.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    So, with the changes being made, will the new Reformed Journal and the Twelve allow (or maybe even seek out) contributors who would be considered conservative, complimentarian, non-Marxist, or even Evangelical?

    Or should we all stay in our silos?

    I know some fantastic thinkers who would add much to current topics and may even challenge some of the other writers here to sharpen their thinking.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    History, always instructive … thanks.

  • Ann Clark Carda says:

    My copy of The Best of the RJ just arrived today. Can’t wait to dive in!

  • Ruth Vis says:

    Thanks, Jim, for the history. The RJ and Christianity Today were staples in my household, and my father read them religiously. (I was just young enough to prefer Capture the Flag.) Now in my [older] age, I’m eager to see what comes next.

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