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The Run of History

By March 18, 2024 10 Comments

Hello again, Ron:

Here’s the third installment of my take on how people in the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America are like, and unlike, the vast tribe known as “evangelicals” in North America.

In Part 1 I compared how these two groups treat the how and what of salvation. In Part 2 I unpacked white American evangelical assumptions about history and the worth of the earth. Now let’s talk about Dutch Reformed views of the same subject and how they might help explain the increasing gravitation of this small tribe toward the larger one.


As I see it, there are three concepts of history coursing through the RCA and CRC. The first is a yearning to preserve or restore some past purity. This was the impulse behind the Secession of a hundred-plus churches from the national Reformed Church in the Netherlands beginning in 1834. The Seceders were protesting the “departure” of church authorities from, and their own desire to return to, “the standpoint of the fathers.”

Albertus Van Raalte, founder of Holland, MI

Most of the leaders and a critical mass of Dutch immigrants to the United States in the 1840s and ‘50s were Seceders, and since that immigration founded the CRC and a good part of the RCA, it’s safe to say that the Seceder view of history is baked into these churches.

In this view, the future will probably see decay or falling away, requiring another return to the putative golden past. My favorite States-side example of the phenomenon was the question posed by the rising CRC chieftain Henry J. Kuiper after Calvin College’s very first commencement as a four-year institution: ‘what’s gone wrong at Calvin’? Change spells deviation. Notably, the movement that has recently taken over the CRC started out as The Returning Church. It is now the Abide Project.

How does this reading of history relate to secular affairs, to “the world” and our role in it? Ambivalently. Pure nostalgics cluck about degeneration from the good old days—an era that their own parents regarded as a sad degeneration from their good old days. True conservatives recognize the necessity of change but hope to keep it to a minimum and judge it by exacting standards. The capitalistically inclined—economic “conservatives”—are in a pinch because that system requires incessant change. Alexis de Tocqueville spied the American (or Victorian) solution almost 200 years ago: jettison the 10th commandment and double-down on the 7th. Pursue material acquisition within the framework of the patriarchal family.


Caricature of Abraham Kuyper

A second reading of history can be identified with Abraham Kuyper. To quote, again, his sharp rejoinder to pious contempt for the world: “the world now, as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God, and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation here on earth a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God.” (Lectures on Calvinism, 162)

Kuyper had absorbed a lot of Hegel in his student years at Leiden, and so he tended to see mighty forces at work in the world, vast systems in mortal combat, and he was constantly assessing the role Christians were to play in the mix. Often the picture was daunting: unbelief was on the rise and the faithful were imperiled. But things were never hopeless because God still reigned and the opposition harbored fatal flaws. Thus—and here was the bottom line—God’s faithful were called to action, to engage all domains of life as their part in the great divine drama.

Free University of Amsterdam students, circa 1880s

The potential triumphalism in this concept has all too often been realized in Kuyperians’ declaration that they, “we,” are to bring in the kingdom of God. Erstwhile Kuyperian Daniel Meeter sounds the corrective: the faithful are to testify to the divine reign that has already been inaugurated and at God’s hand, not by our work.

Kuyperians recognize that much in life weighs against that reign and that sometimes Christians make things worse. So history is a struggle, an arena for witness and a testing ground for the biblical integrity of that witness. But it’s never a ground for despair and rarely dull. History is a drama, just not one given to the apocalyptic fantasies of the evangelical end-times scenario.


A third take on history was laid out in a rich article the self-same Daniel Meeter published in the Reformed Journal last month. “The RCA tends to think historically,” he says, “while the CRC thinks doctrinally. The RCA values continuity and relationships more than being right.” Rather than dreaming of a golden past or inflating everyday events, this mentality accepts the steady accumulations of the past as the providential setting for our action going into the future. Also as a set of lessons for guidance and correction, though not a bar of prohibition and excision. We are to appreciate history and learn from it and build on it but not use it to sort out the wheat and the tares.

This mentality can overlap with the other two when they’re in a congenial mode. It’s a solid base for that “long obedience in the same direction” that Eugene Peterson named as the Christian’s calling. But it lacks sex appeal. As Daniel posted in response to my Part 2, the end-times scenario is “so much more exciting than boring catechisms.” Further, tolerance can (note: not must) lead to a bland sort of church, tribal in its own way. “We’re here because we all get along.”

First Church, Albany NY

It can also flail when confronted with urgent issues. Daniel’s article shows how since 1850 the RCA functioned as a coalition between congregations founded in the colonial era and those founded out of the Secession-led immigration. Like all coalitions it had fault lines and tensions, which usually could be handled. “But with the [recent] human sexuality debate the tension could not hold and the coalition failed,” with a resulting exodus of some 250 congregations from the fold.

Erosion and Ejection

The CRC is facing its own fracture, though much smaller in scale, at the other end of the spectrum, and via excision, not exodus. At least forty congregations disagree with the 2022 Synodical ban on all same-sex relationships, and if the next Synod changes the Church Order as proposed, it will be able to force the dissenters into “alignment” or out of the church.

Certainly, the drive to recover purity is in play here. But another sense of history—better, its erosion—is at work as well. Call it the Dutch-Name-Bingo sense of history, an immigrant tribe’s sense of a shared past bearing such deep interlinkages that everyone can find a connection via family or friends to everyone else at no more than five removes. So if it is no longer true, as it once was, that the CRC has one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one college, one seminary, and one order of worship, it did have that dense social network.

That network has eroded, for three reasons. First, the CRC is far more multiethnic than it used to be—other bingo cards are in play. Second, any Dutch immigrant memory has utterly faded under thorough Americanization. Third, that process has enmeshed people in a much more complex system of communication and information. And here’s where the Evangelical connection, or gravitation, comes into play.

James Dobson

Some years ago I served on a committee to recommend a future course for The Banner, the CRC’s official magazine. Staff supplied us with survey results that revealed the readership’s #1 theological authority to be Charles Colson. Their #1 ethical guide? James Dobson. A felon and an Arminian. Game over, I feared, but still hoped the results could be reversed. I was wrong.


It turns out that the 1928 CRC Synod’s strictures against movie-going made some sense. Controlling identity requires controlling communication. But Hollywood posed only one intrusion, and not the most powerful one. That was, first, Christian radio—WMBI, WFUR, etc.—beaming evangelical nostrums, alarms, and hymnody into Christian Reformed homes. More powerful still has been Christian TV.

Robert Schuller

My bet is that future historians will date the real diminution of Reformed sensibilities in the CRC and RCA to the 1970s when a more glamorous version of the gospel came pumping into the living room on Sunday nights after the two-fold shot of routine at morning and evening services. There remained only the need for Fox News to supply a view of the world that completed a new worldview.

That worldview certainly has connections with the mentalities sketched above. Most of all, with the yearning to return to a supposed golden past (Make Christianity Pure Again!) premised on white patriarchal social values. Then, borrow some of that Kuyperian urgency and triumphalism and presume a tribe of likeminded people who can all get along if only those outside unpleasantries would go away.

It’s been some time coming, and it has fully arrived.

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.


  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Your 3 views of history remind me of Robin Lovin’s 4 different Christian stances toward secular society. There is Integrity where we focus on differences and stay pure and separate (conservative CRC & RCA stance). There is Synergy where we cooperate with the world as much as possible (optimistic moderates in the CRC & RCA). There is Realism where we cooperate but remember we are also fallen & sinful (pessimistic moderates in the CRC & RCA). Then there is Liberation where we work to free people from oppression (liberals in CRC & RCA).

  • John Hubers says:

    Enjoying your robust and
    entertaining dissection of contemporary RCA and CRC identity vis a vis evangelicalism. Would love to see a similar series addressing contrasts with the contemporary progressive Christian movement which has jettisoned doctrine and evangelism for social engagement and intrafaith get along-ism.

    My time on RCA staff working with ecumenical colleagues made me aware that the RCA cleaves to an uncertain mushy middle betwixt and between progressive and evangelical – a nowhere land where few are able to negotiate well. Right now the MAGA phenomenon has made us more aware of that slippery slope. What about the other side of the spectrum? What would that conversation look like?

    Part 2?

  • RZ says:

    Another fascinating historical perspective here. And we continue to assert that our theology is pure, free from the reactions of history!
    It seems to me that our NT church model does not really guide our denominational and ethnic loyalties. Denominations and creedal assemblies are our own historical creations. Most of us are CRC or RCA because we grew up in those rivers.
    Two more quick thoughts:
    1. The golden age is a myth. Golden for some perhaps, but rigidly exclusive and exploitative for others. When was the church pure?
    2. In regard to the mushy middle, I wonder if we want it within our denominations or if we wish to push it toward the church at-large? What exactly is the minimum formula for belonging? Many of our folks don’t really critically consider what they believe anyway. The way I learned my catechism is not the way I teach it today. I do not consider that progressive or conservative, but rather, transforming. Neither do I wish to be mushy, but I am sure not interested in becoming a militant zealot on either “side.”
    Thanks, everyone, for the dialogue here.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Jim, that’s a telling point about Colson and Dobson. And the new strange mix of your famous typology: negative doctrinalists who have become simultaneously culturalists thanks to Colson, Dobson, and the like. Following Bloom’s analysis in The American Religion, the formerly private sexual ethic (sexuality and abortion) becomes the public ethic and cultural signal. One detail: in the paragraph of the breaking of the CRC network through immigration-distance and Americanization, there is also Canadianization, which is harder to determine and track, but proving almost as threatening to the CRC network.

  • Adrian Helleman says:

    Americanization and Canadianization, raised by both Bratt and Meeter, are merely recent examples of the eternal — at least until the Parousia — issue of the indigenization of the Gospel in every age and location. The church, as recorded already in Acts, struggled with that issue, and has continued to do so ever since. Such indigenization cannot be avoided, nor rejected outright. The form it takes will vary from age to age and from place to place. One answer cannot suffice always and everywhere, and thus we should not we look back to the old answers as sufficient for us us today whether we live in the US, Canada, or anywhere else. We should not sanctify any Golden Age, as if that would provide a solution, although we can learn from the past and from other local responses. The implication for the the CRC on the issue of human sexuality cannot be resolved by Synod imposing a one-size-fits-all solution for every church in the US and Canada. If the local option is not allowed, and all office bearers are forced into a church order straight jacket, then one step toward a solution is for the CRC to no longer be bi-national and permit different responses in both countries and also among different congregations. Although I cannot forecast what Synod 2024 will do, I feel that the CRC, which has been my church home ever since my family arrived in Canada more than 70 years ago, is forcing me and many others out of the church that I have grown to love. Because of the international nature my career has taken, I have been, and will therefore continue to be at home, in many churches all over the world. I am not married to the CRC, although I am ordained in it. Soon I may be forced to seek a church that better fits my understanding of indigenization. Thankfully, my own local church here in Toronto is fully affirming, and thus I won’t have to look very far. However, I do feel sorry for those in the CRC who are adamant in in imposing their own vision on every one else.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Dear Jim,
    I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude once again for the thorough, thought-provoking, and scholarly articles you’ve provided. When I initially proposed the topic, I did not anticipate or expect the amount of work that you put into each of the three separate publications. Needless to say, the exceptional quality of your work comes as no surprise; it’s something we’ve come to expect, even as we continue to be awed by it.
    Upon revisiting the first two articles, I’ve decided to save them, along with this latest one, to a special file. I’m doing this for a few reasons: First, I admit to a certain vanity in having played a part in instigating these pieces. Secondly, it’s important to me that none of your ideas get lost over time. The depth of history and insight you provide require (for me) multiple readings to be retained; I wouldn’t want any of it lost to my ancient brain.
    I also reviewed the comments from readers on each article. I found them rewarding, and I hope you do too. It’s amazing to see how your work has inspired and engaged others, especially those whose deep knowledge and scholarship shine through in their comments.
    I want to express how honored I am to be considered a friend worthy of your response.
    Warm regards,

  • Jeff Brower says:

    “Some years ago I served on a committee to recommend a future course for The Banner, the CRC’s official magazine. Staff supplied us with survey results that revealed the readership’s #1 theological authority to be Charles Colson. Their #1 ethical guide? James Dobson. A felon and an Arminian. Game over, I feared, but still hoped the results could be reversed. I was wrong.”

    My goodness, what an odd comment. So your problem wasn’t with Colson’s theology but with the fact that he was a felon?

    “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this convicted felon…”

    If that’s the criteria, I suppose we can do away with all that tainted theology from that “blasphemer, persecutor and violent man”, Saul of Tarsus.


  • Ken Kuipers says:

    These three articles remind me of the phrase “shining a light into dark places’. We are indebted to Dr Bratt for such enlightening insights into our sad and divisive situation.
    Whenever the church of Christ experiences such division, I think back in our history to the phrase “de Doleantie” of 1892 led by Abraham Kuyper. Literally it means “the grieving ones”. The word suggests the heaviness that many of us feel somewhere deep within our hearts over such separation to what Christ has brought together.
    I also look back on the leadership of Abraham Kuyper as a person who led with real compassion. He was a man of the common people and as scholarly as he was, he was able to connect and encourage what he called the “kleine luyden”.
    Somehow, in our contemporary church (and society), the common person feels disconnected from the scholarly leadership of our times. Our leaders are somehow seen as the “elite” who have moved on and left the common folks to find more simple and more concrete answers to life’s complicated challenges.
    I am praying for an Abraham Kuyper who can connect once again with the common people and persuade them that times change and Christ can lead us into forging new understandings for the new developments of our age.
    Ken Kuipers
    Holland, MI

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    JIm, I’m grateful as always for your incisive and authoritative accounts. I remember you saying, years ago, that the two most followed “theologians” in the CRC were Colson and Dobson. I thought that was just your wise assessment of the matter; turns out there was data! I witnessed the shift toward evagelicalism in the CRC just as you describe. I would suggest that the election of 1980 was also a watershed moment, part of the shift. Carter was the “genuine” evangelical, but Reagan was the darling of the religious right at its inception. And many CRC people chose that path. At least in my parents’ household (I was a kid), that had more to do with economic and political conservatism than anything else. As for denominations, I think they are, at heart, more about story/history than about doctrine/polity. Both are important, of course, but at moments of upheaval, such as we face now, the doctrinal disagreements are very hard, but the sense of losing our story is even worse.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Jim, as I read this again, I am struck by your quotation from Father Abraham, that phrase, “apart from salvation,” in which “apart from” carries so much weight and ambiguity. If I were following Mao Tse Tung’s critical dialectics, I would say that that phase is the hinge of the contradiction that must be attacked / addressed. I think it may be a structural weakness in Kuyper’s system, the link between salvation as per Dort and his creative cultural appreciation of the mighty forces of history under the hand of God in this dispensation. His salvation remains Augustinian, his City of God is heavenly and wants to exclude the worldly city. The weakness of his link shows up sideways in “presumptive regeneration.” Rich Mouw addresses it with his “redeemed cultural discipleship,” and “when the kings come marching in,” indeed, “political evangelism.” But what we’ve got right now in the Christian right is political evangelicalism. Which Barth’s critique was just waiting for. But Irenaeus, for example, would never say, “apart from salvation.” The whole historical process is part of the salvation.

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