“ Hope for even the most wretched ” ?


DOWNLOAD: Retirement Lecture, Dirk J Smit, 11 October 2017

“Hope for Even the Most Wretched”? On Remembering the Reformation- Retirement Lecture, Dirk J Smit, 11 October 2017 


On Remembering

In his account of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu remembers how he became increasingly aware how relevant theology is for the whole of life.1 After all, what we love, trust and hope for, matters, for our lives, for our public life together and for the world we share. Yet, how does it matter?

Michael Welker – the Reformed systematic theologian from Heidelberg – often reflected with colleagues on the question how shared traditions matter.

They developed distinctions between different forms of memory, some weaker, more fluid, even fading, but some stronger, longer lasting, with the potential of suddenly becoming alive again, providing new perspective and orientation, new motivation and inspiration in new circumstances.

2 This is how living traditions matter and become relevant again, albeit in new and sometimes unexpected, even shocking ways. Welker describes this as “necessarily restless  memory,” memory  which “continuall y calls  forth  new interpretations without losing its centering.”

3 These new interpretations appeal to the tradition and often claim that they explain what the heart of the tradi tion had always been about, but in actual fact these appeals to the tradition may bring new insight and new relevance and power. It is as if a truly living tradition is restless, ever renewing itself by transforming itself.

We all know such experiences. W e all belong to communities of interpretation, sharing ways of seeing the world, and we all stand in traditions of interpretation, receiving convictions and values from those before and around us, finding our own way in the world helped by these memories. Sometimes, fragments of these traditions may suddenly come to life. They may suddenly make sense, cast new light, change our perspectives, move us, challenge us, even transform us. We all know such experiences – and that is how faith and theology matters. Sometimes, such fragments may remind us of roots and histories and figures and events of long ago that become alive and meaningful again in our present. Such insights may become new histories of reception, creating their own new traditions. They may surprise us, by claiming riches from our tradition of which we

1 Desmond M Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, Johannesburg: Rider, 1999, 73 but he repeatedly returns to the same theme.

2 He often referred to the work of his Heidelberg co lleague in Egyptology, Jan Assmann, for example Da s kulturelle

Gedächtnis, München: C H  Beck,  1992,  and  “Was  ist  das  ‘kulturelle  Gedächtnis’?”  in  Religion und kulturelles

Gedächtnis, München: C H B eck, 2000, 11-44. On the basis of these t heoretical discussions, Welker co uld therefore claim, i n his systematic-theological work, that “this me mory is  a c ultural p ower tha t tr ansforms  the  world,”  What

Happens in Holy Communion?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, 13 2. In his inaugural lecture in Stellenbosch, Robert Vosloo also made use of these theories on memory and tradition, particularly the work of Aleida Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit: Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik, München: C H Beck, 2006. See Robert R

Vosloo, Time in Our Time: On Theology and Future- Oriented Memory, Stellenbosch: Sun Media, 2015.

3 Michael  Welker,  ‘Who  is  Jesus  Christ  for  Us  Today?,”  Harvard Theological Review 95/2, 2002, 145-146; also

Welker, What Happens in Holy Communion?, 127-129.

2 had been unaware. They may even shock us, revealing to us how unfaithful and far removed we have grown from the traditions in which we claim that we are standing. They ma y perhaps open up a reservoir of new meanings, a surplus of potential for the future which we do not yet fully understand ourselves. These are all ways in which faith and theology matters.

This is, of course, also what happened during the times which we now call the Reformation.

New generations of believers appealed to what the y claimed were the heart of the tradition and they claimed that against the historical forms of the tradition in their own times. Their new interpretations in turn formed new histories of reception and took on new forms of embodiment and life, in many ways radically different from anything in the past. These new histories of interpretation would themselves again and again become alive again, orientating, moving, inspiring, and in this process they would often surprise, often shock, often lead to a rich new surplus of possibilities. This is the way in which the Reformation remains a living tradition for many, the way in which its faith and theology matters.

I am not sure about the nature of a retirement lecture, but hopefully it is allowed to call to mind one particular fragment of the tradition that came to life in my own biography, and how it made sense to me, often surprising, even disturbing, often open to the future and rich with potential beyond my own comprehension, and how this conviction was affirmed to me again and again, b y many different voices.4 M y account is therefore not an argument, but simply a series of personal recollections, of random memories of figures and moments which, at least to my mind, all contributed to witness to the same fragment of the tradition.

On Remembering 1976

In 1976, I was a final year in the Stellenbosch Faculty of Theology, then all-white, in an all-male and all-Dutch Reformed class, when apartheid South Africa exploded with the Soweto uprising and the protests that spread like wildfire, from campuses to the streets. Engaged in a thesis for the Licenciate in Theology, I was studying the Dutch systematic theologian from the early 20th century, Herman Bavinck.5

4 One specific example could be the reception history of the clause about Pontius P ilate in the early creeds, on which

I reflected in an essay honoring Michael Welker, see Dirk J Smit, “‘Under Pontius Pilate” – on Living Cultural Memory and Christian Confession,” in Who is Je sus Christ for Us Today? Pathways to Contemporary Christology, Andreas Schuele & Günther Thomas, eds, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 19-49. For several other fragments

of the tradition and how they were appropriated in the Reformation and specifically in some strands of the Reformed tradition, see the collections of my essays edited by respectively Robert Vosloo and Len Hansen, Essays on Being Reformed. Collected Essays 3, Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2009, and Opstelle oor Gereformeerd-wees Vandag.

Versamelde Opstelle 4, Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2013.

5 See Dirk J Smit, Waarheid en  Verifikasie by  Herman Bavinck.  ‘n Uiteensetting  van die Waarheids – en Verifikasie

Problematiek met Besondere Verwysing na Herman Bavinck , unpublished, Stellenbosch University, 1976.



In his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, discussing the doctrine of God, Bavinck focuses on election, in his tradition the very heart of the Reformation, by contrasting this teaching with Pelagianism. In order to appreciate his argument, it is necessary to quote at length.6

“Both for unbelievers and believers,” Bavinck  writes,  “the doctrine of election is a source of

inexpressibly great comfort.” He is deliberately polemical. The claim o f Pelagianism is precisely that election leads to anxiety and fear, to the very opposite of  “inexpressibly  great  comfort.” Bavinck continues, substantiating his surprising claim, “If it (salvation, well-being, flourishing,

our comfort) were based on justice and merit, all would be lost. But now that election operates

according to grace, there is hope even for the most wretched.” This is his claim, for him the good news of God’s  free and gracious  election. Now – suddenly, surprisingly – there is hope even for the most wretched.

“If work and reward were the standard of admission into the kingdom of heaven,”  he continues,

“its gates would be opened for no one. Or if Pelagius’s doctrine were the standard, and the virtuous were chosen because of their virtue, and Pharisees because of their righteousness, wretched publicans would be shut out. Pelagianism has no pity.” Again, these words directly contradict the Pelagian accusation that election has no pity, but is hard and merciless, cr uel and terrifying. The exact opposite applies, argues Bavinck, Pelagianism has no pity, since it makes our salvation dependent upon ourselves and our virtue and achievement, while election is merciful, bringing hope even for the most wretched.

“To believe in and to confess election,” Bavinck proceeds, “is to recognize even the most unworthy and degraded human being as a creature of God and an object of his eternal love.” This is both the ground and the consequence of the doctrine of election – for Bavinck, therefore, of the central message of the Reformation – that we may and indeed should recognize even the most unworth y and degraded human beings as creatures of God and objects of God’s  eternal love.  The almost direct allusions to Calvin cannot be overlooked. Calvin also described those whom we regard as the most unworthy and degraded of human beings and then argued that God gave us two things to recognize in them, namely God’s own glorious image and our own flesh.

“The purpose of election is not – as it is so often proclaimed – to turn off the many,” says Bavinck,  “but to invite all to participate  in the riches of God’s grace in Christ.” Then he draws remarkable conclusions. “No one therefore has a right to believe that he or she is lost, for everyone is sincerely and urgently called to believe in Christ with  a view to  salvation,” he sa ys. “No one can actually believe it, for one’s  own life and all  that makes it enjo yable is proof that God takes no delight in one’s death,”  he sa ys. “No one really believes it, for that  would be  hell on  earth,” he  says. No,

there is hope even for the most wretched, and therefore we may not, cannot, and do not believe that anyone is lost and not the object of God’s  eternal love – this is true even and precisel y of the most wretched in our eyes. Election is thus a source of comfort and confidence, he says, since it

6 In the original Dutch, Herman Bavinck, Gereformee rde Dogmatiek. Tweede Deel, Kampen: Kok, 1967, 36 5-366. It is here quoted from the English translation, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, translated by John Vriend and ed ited by John Bolt, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004, 402.


4 assures us that “the salvation of human beings is firmly established in the gracious and omnipotent good pleasure of God.”

Remarkably, this argument occurs  in a  section with  the heading  “On Earth  as it  is in  Heaven.”7 Although Bavinck does not spell out any practical consequences for the Christian life, it is not far- fetched to assume that he would have been aware of them. His argument obviously has

implications for how we look at others, see and regard strangers, recognize in one another objects of God’s eternal love and therefore also objects of our love. His argument challenges us to talk to

and about others in such ways that they never lose hope, never become wretched in their own eyes, never begin to doubt that they are objects of God’s eternal love and therefore also accepted by us.

Remembering these words during those dark times of 1976 in apartheid South Africa one could

almost imagine that this is what Paul had in mind writing to the Romans, and what Luther saw that day in the tower of his house in Wittenberg when he discovered  God’s saving justice for the first time in Romans 1:16-17.8

God’s justice is not an attribute of God, Luther discovered to his own surprise and overwhelming joy, but rather God’s action, it is what God does, namely that God justifies whoever God chooses to justify. God justifies first the Jew, yes, but also the Greek, and then all those described in chapters 2 to 3, all those without the law and without any virtue and claim, even the most wretched in our reckoning, yes, even God’s enemies.

For this reason, there is hope even for the most wretched.

One could suddenly see how this surprising insight into God’s free and sovereign grace in Romans 1:16-17 leads to the justification by faith alone in chapters 3 to 5, to the undeserved grace of wretched lives made new in chapters 6 to 8, to the doxological praise on this free grace of chapters 9 to 11, and to the everyday lives that now, through the life-giving Spirit, embody this free grace in chapters 12 to 15, 9 culminating in the moving appeal of Romans 15:7 that we should accept one

7 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Volume 2, Part III, “God’s Will on Ear th as it is in Heaven,” 337-405.

8 In Luther’s own words during his later years, looking back at this foundational experience – foundational for his own spiritual life but also for the Reformation – when he was still young, “I greatly longed to understand Paul ’s Epistle to  the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of  God’, because I took it to mean that  justice whereby God is just and d eals justly in punishing the unjust … Therefore  I did not love a just and angry God,  but rather  hated and  murmured against h im …Then  I grasped  that the justice of God is that righteousness b y which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture too k on a new meaning, and whereas before the  ‘justice of  God’ had filled  me with hate, now  it became to me  inexpressibly sweet in  greater love. The p assage of Paul became  to me a gate of  heaven …,” quoted in James  D G Dunn & Alan M  Suggate, The Ju stice of God. A Fresh Look at the

Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 199 3, 7.

9 In the early 1970s, Bible study played a major role in the spiritual and theological development of many of us as

students, see my essay  “On belonging. Doing theolog y together,” Shap ing a Global Theological Mind, ed. Darren C

Marks, Burlington: Ashgate, 153-162. In the circles of the (Afrikaans-speaking) Student Christian Movement some of us would stud y Ro mans intensel y, I vividly remember weekends and whole weeks during short holidays when students (including friends like Coenie Burger, Elna Mouton, Francois Wessels, Leon Fouche, and others) would study and discuss the letter as a whole and specificall y concentrate on the structure and thrust of the whole Romans. In this process, the theological commentary by Willem D Jonker, Die Brief aan die Romeine , Kaapstad: NGKU, 1969 , was popular and helpful.



another as Christ has accepted us, to the glory of this God. 10 After all, when we accept one another in this way, we are doing what the justifying God has done in God’s free and sovereign grace.11

One could suddenly understand that there is hope for the most wretched in our eyes, not only in heaven but also on earth, because of God’s  free grace that accepts  us all as we are and moves us to accept one another and all others as they are, irrespective of how wretched they may seem in our eyes, all together objects of the eternal love of the Triune God. One could suddenly appreciate that this conviction is at the heart of the tradition in which we stand and to which we belong.

On Remembering Similar Voices

Whenever a fragment from the tradition becomes alive li ke this, other voices may suddenly seem to affirm this understanding, all kinds of other witnesses may seem to support and further strengthen this new interpretation.

This was also the case for me. So many voices, so many witnesses, all seemed to affirm what I thought I heard from Bavinck and then recognized back in Luther and further back in Paul.

Was this not the same tra dition that inspired Archbishop Tutu when he so movingly claimed that the most vicious, indeed the most blasphemous aspect of apartheid was for him not the great suffering it caused its victims, but the fact that it could make a child of God doubt that he or she is a child of God?12

Were these not the same convictions which inspi red Willie Jonker writing on election in his Uit Vrye Guns Alleen?13 He argued that this doctrine only functions in a doxological context, as praise, born in wonder and gratitude, for  God’s free grace  in Christ and through the Spirit .14 Election is

10 When the International Bonhoeffer Society met in Cape Town in 1996, I was asked to write an essay in preparation on “Dietrich Bo nhoeffer and ‘The Other.’ Accept One Anot her, Therefore (Ro m 15:7),” JTSA, December 1995, No 93, 3-16. Bonhoeffer commented on these words in the wedding sermon which he sent from the prison cell. In November 1989 I therefore alread y used Romans 15:7 for the wedding sermon when Russel and Beryl Botman were

married, since this  was the time  during which he  was working on  his doctoral dissertation  on Bonhoeffer’s ideas  on discipleship and transformation.

11 I t is remarkable how p opular Romans has beco me in the circles of what today is known as Political Theology.

Several of the important representatives of this contemporary movement in political philosophy have written extensively on the Letter to the Romans, including commentaries, for example Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, Stanford: Stanford University P ress, 2005 and Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: Th e Foundation of Universalism ,

Stanford: Stanford Universit y Press, 20 03. The Jewish scholar Jac ob Taubes directly engaged the legal scholar Carl

Schmitt  (who  triggered  much  of  today’s  Political  Theology  with  his  influential  monograph  with  the  same  title,

Political Theology. Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, translated by George Schwab, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) in his lectures on Romans called The Political Theology of Paul, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. For this widespread philosophical and political usage of Paul today, see for example Douglas Harink, ed,

Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision, Eugene: Cascade, 2010, John Milbank, Slavoj Zizek & Creston Davis, Paul’s  New Momen t.  Continental  Philosophy  and  the  Future o f Chris tian  Theology, Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010,

John D Caputo & Linda M Alcoff, St Paul Among the Philosophers , Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009

and Ward Blanton & Hent de Vries, eds, Paul and the Philosophers , New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

12 I  r ead it  the first  time in  Desmond  M T utu, “Chri stianity  and Apartheid,”  in  Apartheid is a Heresy, John W de

Gruchy & Charles Villa-Vicencio, eds, Cape Town: David Philip, 1983, 46-47. Over the years, T utu would however

repeat and develop the claim in different ways, see for example in No Future Without Forgiveness, 155.

13 Willem D Jonker, Uit Vrye Guns alleen. Oor Uitverkiesing en Verbo nd, Pretoria: NGKB, 1988.

14 In the introduction, which he called, in his delibera tely archaic and poetic way, and alluding to words from Totius’

versification of the Psalms, “Uit vrye guns alleen, uit ewige meedoë ,” Uit Vrye Guns Alleen, 13-18.



the mystery and foundation of the good news of the gospel, for the Reformed tradition the central message of the Bible and the heart of the church. After all, Jonker quoted these exact words of Bavinck in full as motto for his study.15

Were these not the same convictions which Jonker himself recognized in a poem by N P van Wyk

Louw which so deeply moved him? In 1962, he was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Congregation of Johannesburg when the y celebrated their 75 th year. They asked Van Wyk Louw for a poem for the festive occasion. Louw produced a  passionate depiction  of God’s  free grace bringing hope to the most wretched of this world, to those not living in white palaces, but outside the gates, “skawagters vol strooi en stof: kras manne wat in skerms woon en r uik na bok en rook

en mof,” hope to strangers in suffering and need, hope in our “benoude vlees,” our fearful flesh.16

Later, in his memories called Selfs die Kerk kan Verander, Jonker would quote the poem in full, as so often before, and comment that Van Wyk Louw understood so well that the church, and also their congregation, was for the wretched of the city, the ellendiges, using Bavinck’s  word.

According to him, Van Wyk Louw understood already then what the Confession of Belhar would

confess much later, namely that God is in a special way the God of the d estitute, the poor and the wronged, and calls  God’s church to  follow in thi s, and Jonker wondered how many members of their congregation at the time understood the meaning of the poem.17

Was this not the heart of the Reformed tradition to which Allan Boesak appealed so often whenever he appealed to Calvin against Calvin, to Kuyper against Kuyper, to the Confessio Belgica article 37 against article 36, to the Reformed confessions against their misuse in the history of Reformed

15 Jo nker delib erately used the long quote from Bavinc k on a sep arate page in front of the book, as summar y and motto, Uit Vrye Guns Alleen, 11.

16 It reads in full: “Nie in die wit paleise nie/wou Hy (uit soewereine Wil)/tot ons soort staat gebore word;/ maar, waar die Kuise en die Arme stil/en buite die hotel se poort/verniet loseer het in die stal,/het Hy, Visarendjie van God,/in ons benoude vlees geval.//Die eerste oë wat Hom sien,/was skawagters vol strooi en stof;/kras manne wat in skerms woon/en ruik na bok en rook en mof;/ná baie dwaal en baie soek/- en selfs digby Herodes vra! -/ kom eindelik die

Wyses tóg/met goud en wierook agterna.//Hy he t sy eerste kern gekies/nie uit geleerdes in die Skrif/of dié wat hande en borde was/met koue  voorgeskrewe drif;/maar vissers en  ‘n tollenaar/die ‘t Hy geroep  met sagte groet:/manne  met  harde hande en s weet/en eelte, en ‘n  oop gemoed.//En toe  Hy sy groot  net uit laat gooi/regs van die bo ot en links en regs,/het  Hy  ingesleep:  ‘n  vreemde  prooi  -/’n  visvangs  soos  die  óú  Wet  slegs/in  skaam  vermoede  kon  vermoed  – :/melaats, besete,  ryk of  klein;/sondaars va n elke  kleur en  geur,/maar in  Sy  glimlag, skielik:  rein,” N P Van Wyk Louw, written on Ascension Day 1962, “Hoe Christus sy Kerk op Aarde (en in ons Stad) Gestig het,” Vyf-en-sewentig

Jaar, Johannesburg: Nederduitse Gereformeerde Gemeente Johannesburg, 1962, 6 -7.

17 “Op  ‘n  middag  het  hy  in  alle  beskeidenheid  die  feesgedig  by  die  pastorie  kom  afgee,  en  dit  met  ‘n  paar

verduidelikings aan my voorgelees. Ek het dit reeds by die eerste aanhoor aangrypend gevind, maar soos met al Louw se gedigte, vind jy algaande steeds meer d aarin … Wat vir my opvallend  was, was die teologiese insig daaragter. Uit

die gemeentegeskiedenis was dit vir hom duidelik dat die Braamfontein waar die eerste Afrikaners hulle in Johannesburg gevestig het, ‘n plek vol armoede en ellende was. Dáár het die kerk aan die Rand sy ontstaan gehad, nie in die rykmansbuurte nie  … Louw het daar mee ‘n fundamentele aspek  van die evangelie na  vore gebring: dat dit  vir  God in sy verkiesende liefde juis om die ellendiges, die sond aars, die armes en die lydendes gaan … In ons land  sou  dit later neerslag vind in die uitspraak van die Belhar -belydenis dat  God as  God van  geregtigheid op  ‘n besondere

manier die God van die noodlydendes, armes en veronregtes is. Dit bly vir my merkwaardig dat Louw dit reeds destyds gesien en op die gemeente van Br aamfontein van toepassing gemaak het. Ek weet nie hoeveel van ons gemeenteled e die reikwydte van die gedig gesnap het nie” (my italics; ellendiges is the exact term that Bavinck also uses), Willie Jonker, Selfs die Kerk Kan Verander, Kaapstad: Tafelberg, 1998 , 50-52.



churches?18 Was this not the hope for the hopeless that Boesak has been claiming and proclaiming continuously, in so many sermons and speeches, letters and lectures, papers and prayers, over so many years?19 Is this not still the theme of his recent study called Dare We Speak of Hope?, when he concludes with a meditation on the words of Isaiah 42:1-4 on the Servant who will bring forth justice to the nations without breaking a bruised reed or quenching a dimly burning wick?20

Was this not the understanding  of  the  Reformation  that  led  to  Russel  Botman’s  controversial  position that the World Alliance of Reformed Churches should not subscribe to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, unless a concern for justi ce could be come part of any such declaration? He spoke at the time as chair of the Roman Catholic-Reformed dialogue, representing the Reformed tradition. He

explicitly appealed to Reformed figures like John Calvin, Karl Barth and John de Gruchy, making the  point  that  the  connection  between  justification  and  justice  “is  not  recent,  but  rooted in our Reformed tradition.” It would be a scandal, he said at the time, “to people who are dying dail y of

poverty, violence and oppression when we postpone discussion on the relationship between justification and justice, treating the latter as merely a matter of ethical application … (it) would

be a betrayal of everything that Christianity has learned about justification after Auschwitz and apartheid.”21

Were these claims not, albeit in different words, the consequences of Bavinck’s claim about hope  even for the most wretched? Suddenly, I thought I heard similar voices from so many sides.

I heard it in the legal scholar John Witte’s persuasive account of the Reformation as A Reformation of Rights, as a historical movement which recognized and protected human dignity in ever deepening ways.22 I heard it in the passionate writings of the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, showing that John Calvin was the first to argue that our love of justice is born not in obedience to God’s will, but in our longing not to hurt, injure and wrong the objects of God’s love, because we do not want to wound God’s own compassionate heart.23 I he ard it in Lekula (Mpo) Ntoane’s

18 See for example Allan A Boesak, Running With Horses. Reflections of an Accidental Politician, Cape Town: Joho!,

2009, 21-47; also his Black and Reformed. Apartheid, Liberation and the Calvinist Tradition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984.

19 For the same way in which he is still doing it, see for example Allan A Boesak, Kairos, Crisis, and Global Apartheid:

The Challenge to Prophetic Resistance, New York: Macmillan Palgrave, 20 15.

20 Allan A Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching For a Language of Life in Faith and Politics, Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 2014, 175-182.

21 In fact, he claimed that this connection is a central doctrinal one for these Reformed theologians, since justice is not

merely an ethical consequence and the proper human response to the gospel of justification, but both justification and justice are  integral to  God’s own  actions of  saving justice,  of liberating  grace, and  since God  does not  treat us  like  rocks and  stones, we  are mad e part  of this  life of  renewal and  transformation, b y God’s  life-giving Spirit, t hrough

grace, H Russel Botman, “Should the Reformed Join In?,”  Reformed World 52/1, 2002, 12-17.

22 John Witte, Jr, The Reformation of Rights. Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press,  2007. W itte’s acco unt is in the form of a remarkable historical narrative ,

consisting of successive episodes (Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, England, North America) showing how the Reformed tradition step by step broadened and deepened its application of the no tions of dignity and rights.

23 Wolterstorff played an influential role in the way many of us at the time understood the Reformed faith and tradition.

Ironically, he himself developed his own interest in issues of justice (or in his terminology: issues of rights and wrongs) during an experience in South Africa, in Potchefstroom, when white Reformed theologians failed to hear what black participants during a conference were saying about their experiences of injustice, see his account in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jo urney Towa rd Justice. Personal En counters in the Global South, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2 013. One



dissertation in which he critiqued South African versions of Calvinism in the name of what he called A Cry for Life.24 I heard it when I began to understand that the Heidelberg Catechism does not speak about sin but about misery, alienation, ellende, wretchedness (originally: von des Menschen Elend; hominis de miseria) – and how crucial this distinction is.25 I heard it in an email that J J F (Jaap) Durand sent me from critical care in hospital, just after surgery for life-threatening

conditions, in which he explained how his own theological convictions developed, saying that he became increasingly under the impression of God’s  freedom  to love and act sovereignly in

history.26 I heard it in what the former Rector of the University of the Western Cape Jakes Gerwel wrote about the Stellenbosch philosopher Johannes Degenaar. During a consultation on The Church and Nationalism during those dark days of conflict, Degenaar commented on how a black participant responded to a white person saying that, if he talks like that, it makes him lose all hope. Both Degenaar and Gerwel argued that what we needed was a grammar for life together, a way of speaking about others and to others that would never make them lose hope.27

I was reminded of the need for such a comfort when I read the descriptions by the Polish social commentator Zygmunt Bauman of our world as a world that conspires against trust, that makes people feel unwanted and unwelcome, wretched and hopeless, a world filled with moral blindness and indifference, a world that excludes, alienates and marginalises strangers.28

It was therefore an inspiring mom ent when, in words similar to Bavinck’s, Russel Botman spoke

about hope for the hopeless in his inaugural lecture in Stellenbosch29 and again later, when as Vice-

particular essay that was for many helpful and  inspiring was Nicholas  Wolterstorff, “The  Wounds of Go d: Calvin’s  Theology  of  Social  Injustice,”  The Reformed Journal, 37/6, 1987, 14-22 (reprinted in Hearing the Call. Liturgy,

Justice, Church, and World, Mark R Gornik & Gregory Thompson, eds, Grand Rapid s: Eerdmans, 2011, 114-132).

24 L R Lekula Ntoane, A Cry for Life. An Interpretation of ‘Calvinism’ and Calvin , Kampen: Kok, 1983.

25 For an account of this interpretation, see my contribution to the 2013 commemoration of the Heidelberg Catechism

in Stellenbosch, Dir k J Smit,  “Vervreemding en Gawe – Sleutel Motiewe  in die Heidelber gse Kategismus?,”  NGTT

54 (1 & 2), 2013, 173-188; for a similar argument, see Michael Welker’s contribution to the same event, ”What Profit  is  the  Reign  of  Christ  to  Us?  The  Heidelberg  Catechism  and  its  Potential  for  the  Future,”  Acta Theologica, 2014

Supplement 20, 280-292, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4314 /actat.v20i1.18S.

26 In a contribution in a Festschrift for Durand I argued that his life and theological work were both characterized b y

the remarkable way in which he took history serio usly, and I speculated about possible influences behind this aspect of his thought. When he suffe red life-threatening illness and underwent surgery, he sent a carefully argued message

of several pages from the hospital, immediately a fter he recovered fro m the surgery, to ex plain where the influences originated. It is an unpublished, per sonal letter, but for my original contribu tion, see Dirk J Smit, “In die  geskiedenis  ingegaan,” in Discerning God’s Justice in Church, Society and Academy. Festschrift for JJF Durand, Ernst Conradie

& Christo Lombard, eds, Stellenbosch: African Sun Media, 2009, 131-166.

27 Degenaar used this expression repeatedly, remembers Ger wel, to illustrate “dat die vorm van ons diskoers die aard

van ons saam-bestaan r aak.” T his is  what he  learnt from  Degenaar, sa ys Gerwel,  “Om aan  te hou  praat, r edelik te  praat, selfs waar die drif en die daad dreig o m die woord te verswelg … Om elke  gespreksgenoot ernstig op te neem,

na sy woord te luister, en hom steeds as mens-spreker te respekteer.” Therefore Gerwel concludes by arguing for “die  noodsaak daarvan om volhardend te bly werk aan die skepping van daardie grammatika van saamleef in geregtigheid,” see G J (Jakes) Gerwel, “Die grammatika van saamleef,” in In gesprek: Opstelle vir Johan Degenaar , André du Toit,

red, Stellenbosch: Voorbrand-Publikasies, 1986, 126 -127.

28 See for example Zygmunt Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?, Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press, 2008 and Zygmunt Bauman & Leonidas Donskis, Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity

in Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

29 H Russel Botman, The End of Hope or New Horizon of Hope? An Outreach of Those in Africa Who Dare to Hope,

Inaugural Address, February 2001, Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University (reprinted in NGTT 43 (1&2), 2002, 22-31).



Chancellor he invited the whole University to commit knowledge and research to a project of hope for the wretched and hopeless,30 to help achi eve the global millennial goals for those suff ering denial and violation of their dignity in so many forms of hopelessness.

When the Theology Faculty responded to this invitation, they appealed explicitly to their Reformation heritage in Calvin’s  well-known ubi cognoscitur Deus etiam colitur humanitas,

wherever God is known, there humanity flourishes. For the faculty, this implied that, wherever the loving grace of God is truly known, human beings will also be accepted in such ways that they are cultivated and cared for and allowed to flourish, even and precisely the most wretched in our own eyes.31

On Remembering Surprises

Sometimes, of course, we may not be prepared for such new ways of re-interpreting our own past. Sometimes, we may be protected from such surprises by our conventional and innocent and harmless ways of standing in our tradition, too accustom ed to its liberating message, too immune

to its transformative power, our memories cold and uninspiring and lifeless. Sometimes, this may also be true of the Reformation, of Luther’s joyful and Calvin’s  grateful discoveries of hope for

even the most wretched.

Sometimes, however,  the “necessarily  restless memory”  may suddenl y become alive again, and fragments may surprise us. God’s free grace and election has often had such an effect. Was this not why James asked his readers, who privileged the rich and humiliated the poor, with obvious surprise, whether they no longer remembered that God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith (2:1-13)? Was this not behind Kierkegaard’s remark of cynical surprise, when the bishop announced to the ro yal family, several rows with members of the Danish Academ y of Science, many bankers, lawyers, judges, wealthy merchants , ‘dear brothers and sisters, behold, God has chosen you for himself, you, the despised and rejected of the earth (1  Cor 1:28),’  – “and no  one  laughs”?32

Sometimes, leading theologians in the tradition expressed similar surprise.

When Karl Barth discussed the mi racles of Jesus in his doctrine of reconciliation, he asked with surprise how Protestantism could possibl y have had such a one-sided view of human need and

30 H Russel Botman,  “A Multi-Cultural University wit h a Pedagogy of Hope for Africa,” Speech on the Occasion of his Installation, 2007, unpublished, but available on several websi tes.

31 “Dis moontlik om te argumenteer dat alle Christelike teologie ten diepste op die bevordering van menswaardigheid

gerig is – of behoort te wees. I n invloedryke teo logiese tradisies geld die motto dat d ie eer van God in die welwese van die mens geleë is; soos in die beroemde samevatting van die 2e eeuse Irenaeus van Lyon, gloria Dei, vivens homo, die eer van God is die lewe van die mens; of in Calvyn se bekende spreuk ubi cognoscitur Deus, etiam colitur humanitas, waar God geken word, word wat menslik is geëer, gedien, opgebo u, gekweek (‘n sleutelmotief vir teoloë

soos Karl Barth, die 20ste eeuse belydende kerktradisie, en ook ‘n vorige Stellenbossse dosent en dekaan, Willie Jonker),” in “Fokus op die bevordering van menswaardigheid, ” unpublished draft report of the Theology Faculty to

the Stellenbosch Strategic Plan, February 2008.

32 See for example James Kiefer’s humorous recollection of Kierkegaard’s description of the sce ne in the Cathedral

in his  “Soren  Kierkegaard,”  available  at  http://satucket.com/lectionary/soren_klierkegaard.htm. For  Kierkegaard’s  own words  in “The  Moment,” see Bruce H Kirmmse, Kierkeg aard in Golden Age Denmark, Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1990, 476.



therefore of grace and salvation, that it completely overlooked God’s free and gracious compassion revealed in Jesus Christ for creatures suffering under the powers of death, caught in the misery caused by violence and injustice, oppression and fear, evil and shame, poverty and pain, caught in the depths of all hopelessness and wretchedness?33

When Oepke Noordmans discussed the state of Protestantism after the Second World War, he wrote a meditation  called  “Zondaar  en  Bedelaar,”  expressing similar surprise. He juxtaposed Jesus’ parables about the Pharisee and the publican and the rich man and Lazarus and asked how

it had been possible for the church to take the one seriously, but not the other, to become a church of sinners but not of beggars? Was the church, in fact, preaching the whole gospel, he wondered, or were they preventing many from entering the gates of grace? God was teaching the church the gospel in new and surprising ways, he s aid. The church was faced with radically new challenges because of what God was revealing to them in these dark times. Wretchedness has many faces, Noordmans said, and grace and hope and salvation also. Protestantism should learn that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus also belongs in the gospel. Protestantism should not fail to see the many faces of wretchedness. Protestantism had to remember that there is more in the gospel than what we have already heard and received, said Noordmans.34

When the Theological Declaration of Barmen was commemorated after fifty years, Jürgen

Moltmann discussed the sixth thesis, that the church is to proclaim the gospel of free grace “to all people,” and  asked who  were these  “all people”? For him, it implied a rejection of the German

Christians and their volk and only referred to volk in the way it is used in the Gospels, as people of

33 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1967, 233. For discussion, see Dirk J Smit,

“Paradigms of Radical Grace”, On Reading Karl Barth in South Africa, Charles Villa-Vicencio, ed, Cape Town: David

Philip, 1988, 17-44; also Dirk J Smit, “On Learning to See? A Reformed Perspective on the Church and the Poor,” in  Suffering, Poverty, and HIV-AIDS: International Pra ctical Theological P erspectives, Pamela Couture and Bonnie J.

Miller-McLemore, eds, Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press, 20 03, 55-70.

34 It provided the key to a series of meditations over several years, it became the title of the first published volume o f

these meditations, and it became the opening essay in Volume 8 of his Verzamelde Werken, the volume with his collected meditations. He showed movingly how the church has succeeded in reading these two parables in two completely different ways, relating much easier to the sins ( zonden) of the p ublican than to the wounds (wond en) of Lazarus, he said. Does Lazarus not b elieve with his sores, with his total misery, with his wretchedness? See Oepke Noordmans, Verzamelde Werken 8, Kampen: Kok, 1980, 15-25. In Karel Blei, Oepke Noordmans. Theo logian of the

Holy Spirit, translated by Allan J Janssen, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013, 152-156, there are some sections from this meditation available in English. It  may be worthwhile  quoting some of  his original words,  to hear Noordmans’  own

voice: “De beide gelijkenissen … zijn allebei heel bekend. Maar de eerste, die van de zondaar, was onder de christenen veel actueler geworden dan die  van de bedelaar … Het lijkt  wel of God daarin verandering  willen brengen. Hij he eft

aan de gelijkenis uit Lukas 16 een toepasselijkheid gegeven, die velen onzer tot mystieke ervaringen bracht. De

lichamelijke nood bleek  in veel nauwer verband  te staan met  de zaligheid, dan  wij meenden … Gaan  de zonden van  de tollenaar ons dan nie meer aan dan de wonden van Lazarus?  …  Zou  de  kerk,  zo  vragen  wij  ons  af,  het  volle

Evangelie hebben gepredikt? Heeft zij ook te weinig aandacht besteed aan de Lazarussen en te veel aan de tollenaars?

Moet de bedelaar precies op dezelfde wijze zalig worden als de zondaar? Weert de kerk doo r haar methodisme niet velen van  de hemelpo ort? …  Lazarus gelooft  met zijn  zweren,  met zijn  totale ellende  … Natuurlijk  is hij  ook een

zondaar, maar daarover spreekt Jezus bij hem niet. Zijn armoede en ellende brengen hem in de hemel. De lichamelijke noden staan in de evangeliën in onmiddelij k verband met de komst van het Ko ninkrijk. Dat dit ook in de wereld het geval is,  leert God  ons  heden ten  dage op  allerlei  wijzen …  Naast de tollenaar vroeg Go d aandacht voor Lazar us. Naast de zondaar voor de bedelaar …(E)r is t weeërlei ellende … Het zijn twee zijden van dezelfde pred iking van het  Koninkrijk …  Daarom moeten  wij deze d ingen in de  bijbel en  in het Evangelie  laten staan!  … God  heeft ons leven  bewogen op een verbijsterende wijze … Er is in het Evangelie nog meer dan de kerk zich daaruit heeft toegeëigend.”



the land, the poor and oppressed of the world. The good news was onl y for them, he said. When Barmen was commemorated after seventy years, Michael Welker disagreed, and argued that for

Barmen “all people” precisely meant all people. After all, Karl Barth, the main author, in 1946

already explained that thesis six referred to what Romans 1:1  calls “the  gospel of  God.” God  is

free grace, said Barth, and the message of free grace is joyful news and hope for all, even the most wretched – as surprising as this may sometimes sound.35

When the (then) Dutch Reformed Mission Church in 1982 in Belhar confessed that the Biblical God has revealed Godself as in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged and that the church is called to follow God in this, standing by people in any form of need, witnessing against and striving against any form of injustice, many were again surprised, because of the different way in which they had always understood the tradition.36

On Remembering Shocks

Sometimes, however, we do not only find such new readings surprisin g, we may even find them

shocking. They may challenge us, upset us, and disturb us. They may confront us in ways that we find difficult to deal with – all of this b elongs to standin g in a living tradition, and is integral to

processes of reformation and transformation.

After all, who are the wretched in our eyes?

The Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin argued that there should always remain some hope for the victims of history, those who died without ever experiencing any justice or delivery, for they are the most wretched. They no longer have any opportunity to become vindicated, to be respected, included, and accepted – or do they? This is why, for Benjamin, hope lies in remembrance, in remembering the promises of the Messiah. His colleague Max Horkheimer objected and said that Benjamin was now doing theology – and Benjamin seemed to agree, acknowledging that these most painful questions of history can only be faced “by enlisting the services of theology.”37 This debate, shocking to many, led the schola r Helmut Peukert to ask what kind of theology would be able to practice – what he called – anamnetic solidarity, solidarity of memory, in which even the victims of history would be remembered, in some form of hope for justification and justice?38

35 For  these references  to Moltmann  and B arth and  for his  own d iscussion, see  Michael  Welker, “Die  freie Gnade

Gottes in Jesus Christus und der Auftrag der Kirche. Die VI. Barmer These: 1934 –1984 – 2004,“ epd-Dokumentation 29, 2004, 9-18.

36 The Reformed theologian Jaap Durand described this rich and joyful message by speaking of the paradigm of grace.

God’s free grace has many faces and comes in many forms, it brings joy and well-being and promise and salvation in many different ways in many different forms of misery and need, from the sinner to the beggar and to many others in between, it is a message of hope even for the most wretched, whether we may find that surprising, or not. Durand uses this expression in the second edition of his study on the doctrine of God, Die Lewende God , Pretoria: NGKB, 1 986,


37 Walter Benjamin, “Theses  on  the  Philosophy  of  History,”  Illuminations, edited by Ha nnah Arendt, New York: Schocken, 1977, 253-264. The reference is to his first thesis. For  a discussion  of some  implications of  Benjamin’s  essay, see Dirk J Smit, “Teses oor  geskiedenis? – Oor onreg, o ordeel en eskatolo gie,” NGTT 2013, Vol 54 (3 & 4),


38 Helmut Peukert, Wissenschaftstheorie – Handlungstheo rie – Fundamentale Theologie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978

(translated as by James Bohman, Science, Action, and Fundamental Theology: Toward a Theology of Communicative Action, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984).



For who are the wretched in our eyes?

When the Reformed world community met in Accra in 2004, they also faced this question and had what was for many a shocking experience. In their pastoral letter sent to member churches after the assembly they gave account of the mood during the meeting. One day the delegates visited the infamous slave castle of Elmina. They saw the dungeon where hundreds of thousands were kept in chains before they were separated, fathers, mo thers, children, and s ent on th e slave ships to unknown destinations, perhaps to die. Right above them was the hall where the sailors, officers and slave owners ate, but also worshipped. The y could still read inscripti ons from the Psalms on the wooden doors, in Dutch, perhaps from Reformed ancestors, proclaiming that t he Lord is their salvation. They could imagine the cries of the captive s underneath the floor, filled with fear and death, while above them worship was taking place. How could our forebears do this, was the initial response of many, how could they not hear, how could they not see? Gradually, however, they became aware that the same might be true of us. We may also be involved, complicit, in views and attitudes, practices and structures that prevent us from hearing the cries and seeing the sufferin g. One day future generations may also ask about us how it was possible not to see what was happening in and to our world. Perhaps we, too, may be more wretched than we are aware of?39

For who are the wretched in our eyes?

In 2012, I was invited to speak in Basel at the launch of a new edition of Karl Barth’s smaller early writings, leading up to his epoch-making Letter to the Romans. 40 The main speaker was Martin

Walser, the celebrated German novelist and public intellectual. He had just recently published his

controversial book on justification, Über Rechtfertigung – eine Versuchung. Our deepest human need, Walser claims, is to be justified. It is the unspoken longing that motivates and moves us –

but in vain. We spend ou r lives in failed attempts to justify ourselves. We try to justify ourselves in our own eyes, in the eyes of others, i n the judgment of the world, but the nagging fea r that we are wretched haunts us. C ulture fails us, he says, art fails us, literature fails us, everyone fails us, because they all deny that we suffer this need. They all only serve to strengthen the Status Anxiety

that so dominates the spirit of our time, the insatiable desire to be accepted and affirmed and justified – in the words of the popular philosopher Alain de Botton.41 Only th e faith tradition,

Walser argues – mentioning Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth – has the courage to proclaim

39 The pastoral letter was published in the Reformed World dedicated to papers and decisions from the Accra Meeting, Reformed World, Vol. 54 (3-4), 2004, 181-184. Similar arguments could of course be made by framing the question

in terms of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press, 2004 (original 1961). He took his title taken  from  the  first  lines  of  “The  Internationale,”  the  19th century  anthem  of  the  left.  Today’s  widespread

decolonization discourses sometimes indeed seem to suggest the radical reversal of roles, so that those who have been

complicit in colonialism (and imperialism) may from another perspective also be regarded as the wretched of the earth. 40 Karl Barth, Vo rträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1914-1921 (mit Friedrich-Wil helm Marquardt† hrsg. von  Hans-Anton

Drewes [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. III], TVZ, Zürich 20 12), the lectures during the symposium were published as Geor g Pfleiderer & Harald Matern, Hg., Theologie im Umbruch der Moderne. Karl Barths frühe Dialektische Th eologie,

Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2014.

41 Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, London: Penguin, 2004. Although he does not use the term justification, he describes the spirit of status anxiety in ways that are similar to the human condition which Walser analyses. “A worry,

so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped  of dignity and respect,” 3-4.



what we truly need, the grace that justifies. It is a remarkable argument, revealing and moving, although shocking to many, from someone who does not regard himself as a person of faith.42

Still, is this shocking reversal of the roles – so that those, who view others as wretched and th ink

of themselves as not in need of justification, suddenly find that they may be the truly wretched, in need of justification – not precisely  Paul’s point  in Romans? Was this not his message to those

who regarded themselves as moral and religious, and not wretched? Was this not what the young Luther discovered in the tower? Was this not what he meant when he scribbled his last written words on his death-bed, wir sind Bettler, hoc est verum, we all are beggars, this is the truth? 43

On Remembering the Surplus

This was indeed what Archbishop Tutu meant when he explained how relevant theology is, for the whole of life. So frequently were they in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission appalled at the depth of human depravity to which human beings could sink, he said, that most of them were tempted to say that those who committed such deeds were monsters, because the deeds were monstrous, but theology prevented them. Theology reminded them that, however diabolical the acts, they did not turn the perpetrators into demons, theology reminded them to discern between act and person, and to remain filled with compassion for persons. The p oint, he said, is that if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons, then they were no longer responsible as moral agents and, more importantly, that would mean that all hope would have been abandoned of their being able to change. Theology, he said, reminded them that even the wretched remain children of God with the possibility to repent and to change. With God, we may never think that it

is too late. We may never give up on anyone, he said in his typical way, because our God is one

who has a particularly s oft spot  for those  in  sin,  for  “the scum  and the  d regs and  those on  the


No future without forgiveness means no hope without justification, but since there is justification there is hope for even the most wretched – from the wretched of the earth and the victims of history to the wretched weaved into complicity in the webs of empire and colonization, oppression and injustice, greed and exclusion, corruption and violence, moral blindness and indifference.

Remembering this tradition matters, since these promises can make a difference, can make reformation and transformation possible – also in public life in our societies and in our global

42 Martin Walser, Über Rechtfertigung – eine Versuchung, Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2012. From the extensive literature, see only the essays in ‘Umgang  mit  Unsäglichem,’  Martin  Walser  und  die  Rechtfertigungsfrage, Zürich: Institut für

Hermeneutik und Religionsphilosophie, 2014. 43 Martin Luther, WA 48, 421.

44 Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 73-77.  Significantly, Tutu dedicated  the book “to the  women and the ‘little   people’ of South Africa.” It is instructi ve how Tutu also speaks about the  central role of Romans in his o wn thought.  He calls Romans 5:8 his special favorite text (“Whilst  we were yet  sinners, Christ died  for us”) and  says that he ha s  only one  sermon, “I  preached my  only sermon  – that God loves us freely as an act of gra ce, that we do not have to

impress God in order for God to love us as reward,” 146.



world.45 Living traditions have a surplus of potential and significance. They are restless, they keep calling forth new interpretations without losing their centering, said Michael Welker.

What I began to hear in 1976, reading Bavinck, was perhaps far removed from what he himself consciously meant at the time,46 but for m e this was what he was saying, and through his words, what the tradition, Calvin and Luther and Paul, were saying.47

Similarly, future generations will hopefully find orientation and draw implications from the wa ys

in which we remember this tradition that we cannot yet foresee. Accepting one another as objects

of the eternal love of God, in the way that Jesus Christ also accepted us, may perhaps in future lead to comfort and hope for even the most wretched in ways which we may not yet even imagine,48

45 For reflection on the importance of such compassion for public life and for the law, see Dirk J Smit, “Justice as/and  Compassion?  On  the  Good  Samaritan  and  Political  Theology,“ in Ret rieving Compassion: Global Ethics, Human

Dignity and the Compassionate God, Julie Claassen & Frits de Lange, ed s, Eugene: Wipf & Stock (forthcoming).

46 In the  spirit of John  Bolt’s informative  study on Bavi nck’s understanding o f the Christian  life, it is fairly obvio us

that Bavinck in his time would not personally share these views, in fact, his convictions on social ills and his views of South Africa, according to a sermon which he delivered in Ka mpen with President Kruger also p resent in the church

(on June 30, 1901), clearly all seem to go in other directions, but one s hould of course, in order to be fair, understand

historical figures against the background o f their own circumstances, see John Bolt, Bavinck on the Christian Life.

Following Jesus in Faithful Service, Wheaton: Crossway, 2015, especially 205-251. Thus, in an interesting essay demonstrating this  kind of  sensitivity, called  “Wipe  Out Lines  of Division  (Not Distincti ons)”: Bennie  Keet, Neo – Calvinism and the Struggle against Apartheid,” Journal of Reformed Theology 11(1-2), 2017, 81-98, the Dutch church

historian George Harinck recently argued that B B (Bennie) Keet, one of the first and major Reformed voiced in South Africa critical of apartheid, got all his theological arguments against apartheid from Bavinck’s theology, under whom

he did his doctoral dissertation (on Troeltsch). According to Harinck, other students of Bavinck also became well- known critics of apartheid (like J J Buskes and J H Bavinck). Keet in turn beca me the professor of apartheid critic C

F (Beyers) Naude and of Jaap Durand, and Jaap Durand did his first doctorate with J H Bavinck. The reception history of fragments of the tradition is clearly less  linear  and  more  dramatic  than  one  may  expect,  illustrating  Welker’s

argument about the “necessarily restless memory” that can “call forth new interpretations without losing its centering.” 47 This would often make it necessary to ackno wledge that our interpretations of the tradition were not the only and

by far not even the dominant ones, see for example my acknowledgeme nt that our Calvin was a contested Calvin in “Views  on  Calvin’s  ethics  from  a  South  African  perspective,”  Reformed World, 2009, 57/4, 306-344, also at

http://www.sek-feps.ch/media/pdf/themen/calvin09/Smit_Calvinsethics_Southafrica.p df; my acknowledgement that our Barth was not everyone’s Barth, ”Dogmatics after ’Barth’? South African Challenges,” in Dogmatics after Barth:

Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy, Günther Thomas, Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Bruce McCormack, eds, 2012, Leipzig: Create Space, 3-14.; and my acknowledgement that our appropriation of the

Confessio Belgica was not the popular one taken for granted in apartheid South Afr ica, “The  Confessio Belgica as Liberating Truth Today?,” in The Belgic Confession at 450, Peter J Tomson et al. , eds., 2012, (Analecta Bruxellensia

15) Maastricht, Shaker Media, 77-88. One could perhaps add our “Bavinck” is probably also not fully the Bavinck of

historical scholarship – this insight is at the heart of how living traditions functio n.

48 On the challenge to build trust in our common world today, see Dirk J Smit, “Welcoming Childr en? – On Building

Cultures  of  Trust,”  Welcoming  Africa’s  Children: Theological and Ministry Perspectives, Gert Breed & Jan

Grobbelaar, eds, 2016, AOSIS, Cape Town, 1-14, http://www.dx.doi.o rg.10.4102/aosis.2016.waccs13.01



to ethical implications far beyond whatever we may understand today,49 to ecclesiological convictions and practices that we are still unable to appreciate and share and embody.50

This is the very nature of living traditions. This restlessness, this surplus may help us to remember that the Reformation is not yet over, perhaps it has scarcely begun. Without losing our centering

in our own tradition, we may indeed dream a different world together,51 we may receive and enjoy the imagination and creativity of tomorrow’s children.52

49 Contemporary evolutionary ethics offers instructive insight in the gradual development and increasing sophistication of altruism. For ethical reflection in our ti me it obviously remains a fundamental challenge to learn to find ever new ways of living together with others and their otherness, see for example the fascinating study by Terry Eagleton,

Trouble With Strangers: A Study of Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, 2009. For different ways of taking the other seriously, including the wretched in our own eyes, see Dirk J Smit, 2017 “Living with Strangers? On Constructing Ethical Discourses,“ Christopher Lilley & Da niel J Pedersen, eds., Human Origins and the Image of God: Essays in Honor

of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017 , 273-313.

50 One could argue that, not only in the circles of the Dutch Reformed churches in Southern Africa, but generally in

churches in the circles of the Reformation, t here is still mu ch to discover about being the one church of Jesus Christ in the world. In the worldwide ecumenical dialogue of several years between the Lutheran World Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (formerly WARC) the acknowledgement has grown that Reformation churches s uffer fro m an ecclesiological deficit, o ften making it easy to underestimate the importance of u nity and communion, of belonging and inclusion, of solidarity and sharing, and possible to exclude others, mostly on so-called non-theological grounds but justifying that with theological arguments. These dialogues led to the report Communion:

On Being the Church. Report of the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Communion o f Reformed Churches (WCRC) , 2006 –2012, and on the basis of that report the joint “Wittenberg  Witness” was  signed by  the Lutheran and Reformed ecumenical bodies, in Wittenberg on July 5,

2017, as part of the commemoration of the Refor mation after 500 years, as a common commitment to overco me past

exclusions and alienation, see https://www.lutheranworld.org/sites/default/files/ gc2017-wittenbergwitness.pdf.

51 See  the  joint  declaration  and  liturgy  called  “Dreaming  a  Different  World  Together,”  in  the  report  of  an  inter-

disciplinary task-group of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa and the Evangelical Refor med Church Germany, Allan Boesak, J ohann Weusmann and Charles Amjad-Ali, eds, Dreamin g a different world, Stellenbosch: Sun Media, 2010, 80-81. This final report was the result of a long process. In Kitwe, Zambia, the Southern Africa Alliance of Reformed Churches made a declaration on global injustice and ecological destruction, appealing amongst others to Calvin and Belhar, when Russel Botman was still their President. At t he General Council of the World Alliance of Refor med Churches in Debrecen, Hungary, this appeal from Kitwe, together with other impulses, led to the declaration of a processus confessionis, calling on all me mber churches to consider whether their involvement in economy and ecology was not a matter involving their faith tradition too. At the General Council in Accra, Ghana, this process of self-examination and discernment, in turn, led to the so-called Accra Confession or Accra Declaration. The joint process between the two German and South African Reformed churches was an attempt to consider together

what the implications of this Declaration could be for the Reformed tradition and commu nities.

52 T he Refor med pastor, theologian a nd p ublic i ntellectual Russel Botman was a living illustration of t his ki nd o f

creative and visionar y imagination, see Dirk J S mit, Th e First Russel Botman Memorial Lecture, 19 October 2015,

Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University,  2015  (reprinted  as “ ‘Making Hi story for  the  Coming Ge neration‘  – On t he Theological Logic of Russel Botman’s Commitment to Transformation,“ Stellenbosch Theological Journal, Vol 1/No

2, 2015, 607-632, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17570/stj.2015.v1n2.a29 ). Botman was partly influenced by the work of

the Brazilian Reformed theologian Rubem Alves, Tomorrow’s  Child.  Imagination,  Creativity,  and  the  Rebirth  of

Culture, New York: Harper & Row, 1972, see Dirk J Smit, “On the Reception of Bonhoeffer – A Case Study of South- South  Dialogue,”  Stellenbosch Theological Journal 2016, Vol 2, No 1, 2016, 89–107 DOI:

http://dx.doi.org/10.17570/stj.2016.v2n1.a05. On the importance of imagination in the tradition, see my sermon during the licensing of theological candidates of URCSA and the DRC, SA Gestig Congregation, Belhar, 27 November 2016

(available at https://kaapkerk.co.za/gesamentlike-legitimasie-27-nov-2016/), as well as my essay on ima gination in the life and work of several prominent South African theologians, “‘Becau se they saw that the child  was beautiful‘ – reimagining  imagination  and  hope,“  Marcia  Bunge  (ed),  The Child in Constructive Theologies: Themes from the

Global Church (forthcoming).