By Rev. Simon Jooste
As South Africa’s second-largest metropolis (after Johannesburg), Cape Town not only has a rich history but is also a melting pot of scenic views, cuisines and skin colours. She boasts incredible beauty but also thrombotic veins of prejudice and inequality, which are still fed by the painful legacy of the failed social experiment of racial segregation known as apartheid.
Remarkably, the Reformed family of churches in South Africa more or less assumed a political role in both the rise and the demise of institutional apartheid, which officially ended in 1994. This political role has continued into the establishment of a new liberal democracy on the southern tip of Africa into the new millennium. Complicating this role has been the social justice ideology of cultural Marxism and postmodern identity politics.
This essay sets forth key events in South African Reformed history, where combinations of Calvinist and Pietist legacies have made the church a questionable political force. In turn, I argue for the corrective value of a cruciform rendering of the church, which is its spiritual polity (Belgic Confession 30).
Calvinist Colonialism: The Three Forms and Pietism
Like the United States, South Africa has a history of pioneering emigrants from the Old World who had a powerful influence on the global expansion of Reformed Protestantism comingled with a “benevolent empire”. Most notable for the purposes of this essay is the genesis of the Protestant witness on the southern tip of Africa through Dutch settlers, starting in 1652.
The first permanent Dutch Reformed minister arrived in the Cape in 1665. One hundred and fifty years after the small beginnings of Roman Catholicism (via Portuguese sailors who landed in Mossel Bay in 1501), the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) slowly monopolized the Christian presence at the Cape of Good Hope. She did so with a constant flow of ministers from and under the supervision of the Classis of Amsterdam (the church governing body), and in the process absorbed the French Huguenots, who immigrated in large numbers to the Cape from 1688 to 1691.
Like the Puritans landing in New England in 1620, the Dutch Reformed who first settled at the Cape brought with them a Christian piety mixed with social, religious and philosophical ideas arising out of post-Reformation Europe. While the Cape settlers lacked an initial sense of “manifest destiny” and permanence (still being under the control of the state-controlled mother church and supposedly on their way east), they nevertheless shared with their North American counterparts two features that would profoundly shape the future of Protestantism in their respective contexts.
First, both the Puritans in America and the Dutch Reformed in South Africa had origins in Protestant and Reformation Europe, a creedal tradition marked by church-centred piety built on the likes of John Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances and The Three Forms of Unity. Like the early Puritans in New England, the Dutch Reformed brought to South Africa substantive elements of Reformed orthodoxy.
In short, and thanks to direct oversight by the Classis of Amsterdam, the early piety of the Dutch settlers at the Cape would have mirrored to a significant degree the faith and practice of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, dictated in substance by the Three Forms of Unity and the 1619 Church Order of Dort. Beyond ministers being ordained and sent from the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, worship services included, for example, the reading of the Decalogue and the Apostles’ Creed, the singing of metrical Psalms only, and the preaching of sermons from the Heidelberg Catechism.
Yet neither of these seventeenth-century New World Reformed ventures would completely rid themselves of European-based social, political and religious ideas that have challenged confessional allegiances to this day. One important religious force was a form of personal and practical devotion otherwise known as Pietism.
A complex movement that emerged in English Puritanism was a kind of self-authenticating spiritual fervour that helped to define an emerging religious movement, which would become known as Pietism. While not necessarily eclipsing laudable tenets of Calvinist orthodoxy, there developed alongside it a strand of what may best be described as a “moral precisionism” that emanated from the heart into all spheres of life as an attempt to prove the authenticity of faith and God’s kingdom for all to see. In this grand practical vision for renewing Christianity, the subjective, moral and political tended to challenge the cross-centred objective of gracious and churchly.
This strand of Pietism in the early English Puritans extended to the continent as well, perhaps most conspicuously in the spiritual renewal movement known as the Nadere Reformatie (Second Reformation) in the Netherlands between roughly 1600 and 1750. What was common to both the English Puritans and the disciples of the Nadere Reformatie was life in a waning Christendom context where the boundaries of church and state still remained diffuse and the policing of morals went both ways.
This flavour of English and Dutch piety made its way to the New World in the seventeenth century. And by the mid-eighteenth century, added to it was the Pietist impulse of the German Reformed Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–60), who arrived on the East Coast of North America in 1741 with his Moravian assistants. The influence of Zinzendorf and his Moravian missionaries extended to other parts of world, including South Africa. In 1737, the first Moravian minister admitted to the colony was Georg Schmidt (1709–85), although his evangelism of the Khoisan (the non-Bantu indigenous peoples of southern Africa) fell short of establishing a new church among the Reformed.
The eagerness of the Moravians was followed in time by the comparable fervour of missionaries from the Baptist Missionary Society (founded by Particular or Calvinist Baptists) and the interdenominational London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1772 and 1775, respectively. Both parachurch organisations grew out of the soil of British Evangelical Revivalism and Methodism, rooted in seventeenth-century Puritanism. In time, the LMS would be joined by other missionaries of the nonconformist stripe, such as the Scots Presbyterians, the (mostly Congregationalist) American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the Berlin Mission Society. With the exception of the Scots, these missionary outfits often bypassed setting up local churches; instead, they founded schools, organised various humanitarian and economic enterprises, and policed morality.
In short, the Pietistic pursuit in early American and South African colonies was of a pure religion, evidenced in the immediate and subjective realm of born-again pious experience and in heartfelt social and political action. That is, Pietism had both individual- and world-changing aspirations, the latter of which were manifested in many of the missions movements of the eighteenth century.
Revivalism and the Transformationist Calvinism of Apartheid
Arguably, the most significant factor in tilting the historic Dutch Reformed tradition in South Africa into an updated Pietistic direction of Revivalism was the introduction of Scottish clergy. Because of a shortage of ministers at the dawn of the nineteenth century, the English governor, Lord Charles Somerset, permitted the importation of Scottish Calvinist pastors. By 1824, the Scottish ministers had gained full control of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church; DRC), having persuaded the colonial government to cut synodical ties with Classis Amsterdam.
Arguably, the most influential British import was Andrew Murray (1794–1866), who landed in the Cape Colony in 1822, along with his large family. In a small church in the Cape that Murray pastored, five of his six sons were ordained and four of his five daughters were married off to influential ministers in the DRC. The older of his sons, John Murray (1826–82), was one of two professors appointed in 1859 at the establishment of Stellenbosch Faculty of Theology—the institution that in subsequent years trained almost every predikant (pastor) entering the DRC. Furthermore, another son, the younger Andrew Murray (1828–1917), who had an extraordinary sixty-eight-year ministry, became a powerful figure at the DRC Cape synods from 1860 until the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902).
Concurrent with the gradual entrenchment of a Pietist strain within the DRC during the nineteenth century was the development of the Afrikaner self-identity as a “chosen people”. A critical event in this history was “the covenant” entered with God during the Great Trek before the Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1839 (the Day of the Vow).
That the Trek-Boers survived this battle against the native Africans would be used to later solidify the mythology of Afrikaner nationhood: the Great Trek being that Exodus from bondage under British rule in the Cape, followed by years of struggle in the wilderness, only to finally arrive one day in the Promised Land of the Boer republics. Such myths and symbols drawn from the Old Testament would in the mid-twentieth century become powerful ideological tools to advance the cause of Afrikaner nationalism through Afrikaner Calvinism, which helped to produce apartheid. This blending of sacred and secular horizons to produce a kind of civil religion—a “light to the nations”—was not unlike that which emerged in the early United States through the blending of Puritan spirituality with the struggles and ambitions of the founding fathers.
The world-changing aspirations of the Pietist strand in the DRC mixed with racially prejudiced British imperialists and the Dutch settler belief in their own God-ordained racial identity and superiority, eventuating in an ethnic conception of covenant and the implementation of segregation along the lines of skin colour inside and outside of Mother Church. Most notable perhaps is the role the Murray family played, on account of the weakness of some, in seeing to it that equality be confined to the spiritual realm.
The landmark synodical decision came in 1857. At this assembly, in which Andrew Murray Senior and Junior played pivotal roles, the DRC voted for the segregation of churches along racial lines. The result was the formation of a separate (though not free of paternal oversight) mission church known as the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Sendingkerk in Suid-Afrika (the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa). Under the guise of covenant and mission, this decision ominously portended the formation of an Afrikaner fusion of church and state that helped to give rise to the institutional form of apartheid. This embodiment of faith in public action, while judged in retrospect to be of the most heinous kind, evidences a Pietist- and Revivalist-like attempt to transform all of life according to a certain, and most unbiblical, racial conception of Christ’s coming kingdom.
The rise of institutional apartheid in the twentieth century is complex. It represents the evolution of the social, political and religious ambitions of the heirs of the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers. The adaptation of religion—particularly a kind of Calvinism or Kuyperianism interwoven with Pietism—to legitimate apartheid cannot be underestimated. This diverse ecclesiastical family, consisting of orthodox-conservative, evangelical and progressive Reformed sympathies, was guilty of supporting a racialized ideology of group interest for sociopolitical ends. Whether at the Lord’s Table, or sitting on a bus or a beach, the cultural vision of Afrikaner nationalist “sphere sovereignty”, rooted in divine orders of creation shaping re-creation, determined that the lives of most Afrikaans Reformed Christians precluded mixing with people of colour. The National Party, which came to power in 1948 with its racial segregationist civil policy, was a political triumph that depended on the support, explicit and otherwise, of the Afrikaans Reformed family of churches, particularly the DRC.
In short, the church could not resist the temptation to shape public life according to a sanctified separate identity by usurping the authority of other institutions, such as the state, and denigrating the image of God in the process.
Social Justice Activism in a Postmodern “Pink” City
Pressures from the 1940s onwards, both inside the church and outside the church, would see apartheid begin to be dismantled. Remarkably, by 1986, the DRC was brought to repentance internally by the disciplining intervention of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. No longer would ethnic division be allowed at the Lord’s Table or at synodical levels—a good example of recovering the third mark of a true church (Belgic 29).
But despite the failure of apartheid (at least officially) and the chastisement that came with it, the now more racially diverse Reformed family of churches could still not contain their world-changing impulses. Spurred on still to leave an indelible imprint on broader society, the faith of the Reformed would continue to be politicized—this time, by immersing itself in helping to realize Nelson Mandela’s dream of a liberal democracy aimed at equality for all. Just as the Bible had once been used to help colonize the Cape and underwrite apartheid, it would now serve more noble civil ends towards a new South Africa.
Although there has been qualified Christian endorsement of certain tenets of political liberalism (particularly by those of free-market British colonialist descent), the predominant emphasis within the liberating and prophetic wing of the broadly Reformed tradition in South Africa has tended in a liberation theology direction. This is not surprising considering the collectivist-socialist elements of both Afrikaner nationalism and the African nationalism of Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, which came to power in 1994. Federations such as the DRC and the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa have drawn from the insights of liberation theology, along with the neo-orthodox emancipatory tradition of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Barmen Declaration (1934). The manifestation of this legacy in South Africa has perhaps been most conspicuous in the socio-politically liberating Belhar Confession (1982), the Kairos Document (1985) and the Road to Damascus (1989).
The church’s self-conscious political role has become more pronounced since the advent of South Africa’s new political dispensation in 1994, for several important reasons. For one, many Christians have embraced with enthusiasm the liberal democratic concepts of equality and freedom. This is very understandable. South Africans, who lived through the oppressive effects of colonialism that helped to give rise to Afrikaner nationalism and its segregationist agenda, have felt empowered by these concepts. Further, what white South African, millennial and older (especially male), does not have some measure of guilt concerning the oppressive history of apartheid? How can white churches, which were at least implicit in their endorsement of apartheid, not do their part in helping to rectify the wrongs of the past? And so, for white middle-class churches, Reformed and otherwise, the pressure for church involvement in nation-building has been great, and the liberal democratic concepts of freedom and equality have seemed to many the most promising way forward.
Further encouraging the advocacy stance of the Reformed tradition in South Africa has been the Western turn since the 1950s towards postmodernism, with its refined and applied social justice agenda in the new millennium. Because of apartheid and the sanctions that came with it, South Africa’s relative isolation has meant her coming late not only to liberal democracy, but also to the deconstructive and yet highly politicized counter-Enlightenment movement of postmodernism. These realities have increased the complexities, as well as the vulnerabilities, of Christians seeking to do right in a time when the notion of an objective and societal justice, let alone the church’s role in achieving it, has become increasingly destabilized along social constructivist lines.
Arguably, at the leading edge of setting the human rights agenda in South Africa has been her most well-known city, Cape Town. Symbolic of this history is the life of Mandela, who made his journey from being a revolutionary prisoner on Robben Island to becoming the first black president of South Africa’s fledgling democracy. A noble and inspiring story of South Africa’s struggle against its unjust past. However, the quest for justice in Cape Town, like in many of the world’s large Western cities, has evolved beyond political liberalism to incorporate a vision for postmodern social justice.
While currents of a more classic Marxism still inform the South African political scene, the cultural elites have widened the category of the “oppressed” to include not only the lower class (particularly those of colour), but also a variety of intersecting and marginalized identity groups. Progressive institutions such as the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch have helped to forge the public policy of Cape Town such that it now has the reputation as the “pink” (queer) city: inclusive of people of colour, women and children, but also those who identify as LGBTQ+. Increasingly, churches of Reformed persuasion and otherwise have mirrored these broader cultural trends under the banner of “gospel liberation”. Most notably, evidence of a hermeneutical shift towards postmodern critical theory and ethics can be seen in the heated theological debates around colonialism, systemic racism, women in office, same-sex marriage and transgenderism.
Recovering Cruciform Confessionalism
There is little doubt that part of what it means to reform as a disciplined church is to root out prejudice, which includes racism and misogyny (Belgic 29). Furthermore, both Scripture and the Reformed confessional tradition instruct Christians to be good citizens in broader society by seeking justice for the oppressed (Gen. 8–9; Rom. 13; BC 36; Heidelberg LD 39). Yet many churches in South Africa consider it their duty as an institution to help transform Alan Paton’s “beloved country” into a kind of new Eden on the order of the Beatitudes. Again, this impulse is understandable considering the above-mentioned historic challenges in southern Africa. Nevertheless, this desire is also arguably in large part due to a thick element of updated Pietism. If it is true that Pietism and Revivalism have built within them a world-changing impulse that is impatient with the constrained order and mundane nature of a counterintuitive spiritual polity, then it should come as no surprise that a political lobbying agenda has been attractive as an addition to or even a replacement of the official ministry of the church.
The continental Reformed churches in South Africa (as well as confessional Anglicans, Presbyterians and Lutherans) have within their traditions the resources necessary to correct what are the unhelpful elements of postmodernism and political activism, which, when taken up into the church, not only misconstrue the mandate of the church, but also cloud instruct objective moral truth when it comes to gender, sexuality and race relations.
By its very nature, to be confessional is to have respect for and be in conversation with the wisdom of previous generations that has spanned the globe. Reformed confessionalism, with its appreciation for the truths revealed by both special revelation and natural revelation, is not endlessly deconstructing and destabilizing in construing “truth”. Christians affirm the spiritually destabilizing historical particular of Christ’s life, death and resurrection at a specific time and in a specific place. This good news, like the practical wisdom found in Proverbs (or God’s natural law), is also of global application, which transcends and brings to nothing the relativizing power plays of socially engineered group interests: Afrikaans, coloured, transgender, or otherwise.
In fact, like the ordering patterns of natural law justice, Reformed Christians confess that the humiliating sign of the cross necessitates restraining forms, which the theologian of glory would like to bypass. The church has always made use of the order of pancultural, self-correcting creeds, thereby hemming in the imaginative pride of fallen man. Central to this creedal heritage is Jesus and his affirmation of the body by assuming the frail form of human flesh in order to save sinners (1 Cor. 15:1–11). Our worship of this Saviour and the exercise of his spiritual gifts are constrained by formal means as well, which include appropriate gender roles and sexual decorum in worship (1 Cor. 11:2–16; 26–40). Yet even while certain embodied creation distinctions continue within the church, the exercise of Christ’s power through them is of an upside-down nature (1 Cor. 1:18–25).
All this to say that the cross-centred form and content of Christ’s spiritual polity are such that ecclesiastical activism is precluded (John 18:36; Belgic 7; 30–32). Beyond the fact that Scripture does not provide a blueprint for civil policy, the inverting ethic of the church is unworkable in a liberal democracy, or any body politic for that matter. In the church, one finds a peculiar community where honour is bestowed on those who are last and least, where injustice is met with the other cheek, and where those who suffer often get more of the same out in the world (Matt. 5–7; 1 Cor. 1:26–31; 12:21–26).
Hence, the church as an institution would do well to resist taking its cues from civil renderings of “social justice”, let alone attempt to reconfigure the same in biblical terms, for pragmatic cultural effect and relevance. To be sure, Christians individually scattered in their vocations can and must affirm the biblical and divine natural law insights into civil government and the human body—but without any grandiose illusions that this constitutes “ministry” or the Great Commission. Church ministry in a confessional key is cruciform because it centres on Christ given to his church through outwardly weak and impotent means of word and sacraments to weak people, who often remain that way until glory (1 Cor. 1:18–2:5; 4:8–13; 7:17–24; Heb. 11; 1 Pet. 2:11). Furthermore, Christians are called to imitate Jesus in “foolish” rights-relinquishing servanthood within the covenant community, even while fulfilling their vocations in the public square as dual citizens (1 Cor. 2; 9:19–23; Rom. 13; Eph. 5–6).
Like in other global contexts, bypassing the peculiar cruciform rendering of the church in South Africa has never ended well. A recovery of the best of Reformed confessionalism—that is, a spiritual polity that is apolitically cross-centred—is central to avoiding the errors of the past and bolstering a gospel witness in the present and future.
Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs. He is also a research associate with Stellenbosch and North-West universities. Prior to returning to South Africa, he spent fifteen years in the United States, which included a career in finance and studies at Westminster Seminary California.
This essay was first published in Modern Reformation.
1. See Richard Elphick, The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu–Natal Press).
2. André du Toit, “No Chosen People: The Myth of the Calvinist Origins of Afrikaner Nationalism and Racial Ideology,” The American Historical Review 88, no. 4 (1983): 920–52.
3. Richard Elphick and Rodney Davenport, Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (Cape Town: David Phillip, 1997); and Dolf Britz and Victor d’Assonville, “Calvin in Africa,” in The Calvin Handbook, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 505–6.
4. Elphick and Davenport, Christianity in South Africa, 21–23, 28.
5. Elphick and Davenport, Christianity in South Africa, 9, 21–25. As to the influence of Calvin on South Africa in the nineteenth century in general, see Britz and d’Assonville, “Calvin in Africa,” 506–7.
6. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis, 2011).
7. P. F. (Flip) Theron, “From Moral Authority to Insignificant Minority: The Precarious State of the Dutch Reformed Church in a Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Journal of Reformed Theology 2 (2008): 230–31.
8. S. E. Duff, “The Dutch Reformed Church and the Protestant Atlantic: Revivalism and Evangelicalism in the Nineteenth-Century Cape Colony,” South African Historical Journal (2018): 8.
9. See John W. de Gruchy, Liberating Reformed Theology: A South African Contribution to an Ecumenical Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 26, 129–30, 264; and David J. Bosch, “The Roots and Fruits of Afrikaner Civil Religion,” in New Faces of Africa: Essays in Honour of Ben (Barend Jacobus) Marais, ed. J. W. Hofmeyr and W. S. Vorster (Pretoria, 1984), 14–35.
10. De Gruchy, Liberating Reformed Theology, 23–25, 190–91.
11. In summary, the Afrikaner Calvinism behind apartheid can be described as the uneasy mixture of nineteenth-century evangelical piety and adapted Kuyperian neo-Calvinism forged in the fires of the Afrikaner struggle for cultural identity and political and economic power. This included blending Afrikaner “sacred history,” with the Afrikaner volk as a “chosen people,” and neo-Calvinism, with its “sovereignty of spheres,” thereby providing the powerful ideological base for Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid. See De Gruchy, Liberating Reformed Theology, 27–29. Willie Jonker helpfully characterized the DRC as reflecting three force fields (kragvelde); namely, its association with the Afrikaner people, its Reformed doctrinal heritage, and a Pietistic form of spirituality. “Kragvelde binne die Kerk,” Nederduitse Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif 30 (July 1989): 11–14. See also P. J. Strauss, “Abraham Kuyper and Pro-Apartheid Theologians in South Africa: Was the Former Misused by the Latter?” in Kuyper Reconsidered: Aspects of His Life and Word, ed. Cornelius van der Kooi (Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 1999); George Harinck, “Abraham Kuyper, South Africa, and Apartheid,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 23:2 (2002): 184–87; Dirk J. Smit, Essays on Being Reformed: Collected Essays 3, ed. Robert Vosloo (Stellenbosch: SUN, 2009), 185–292; and Simon N. Jooste, “Recovering the Calvin of ‘two kingdoms’: A historical-theological inquiry in the light of church-state discourse in South Africa” (PhD diss., University of Stellenbosch, 2013), 78–89, https://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/80065.
12. The full text of the 1982 WARC statement on racism and South Africa is quoted in Appendix 9 in John W. de Gruchy and Charles Villa-Vicencio, Apartheid is Heresy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 168–73. See also J. A. Loubser, “Apartheid Theology: A ‘Contextual’ Theology Gone Wrong?,” Journal of Church and State 38.2 (Spring 1996), 330–31.
13. See Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 419–27.
14. See James Leatt, Contending Ideologies in South Africa, ed. Theo Kneifel and Klaus Nürenberger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).
15. See Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Scepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Dublin, OH: Ockham’s Razor, 2011), esp. chs. 1–2.
16. See the 1996 South African Constitution, https://justice.gov.za/legislation/constitution/SAConstitution-web-eng.pdf. See also the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at Stellenbosch University, http://www.sun.ac.za/english/faculty/theology/bnc/about-us; and the work of Pierre de Vos, professor of constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, http://www.publiclaw.uct.ac.za/pbl/staff/pdevos.
17. See, e.g., Jeremy Punt, “Power, liminality, sex and gender and Gal. 3:28: A postcolonial, queer reading of an influential text,” Neotestimentica 44.1 (2010): 140–66; K. T. Resane, “White fragility, white supremacy and white normativity make theological dialogue on race difficult,” in die Skriflig 55.1 (2021), a2661, https://doi.org/ 10.4102/ids.v55i1.2661; and Nadia Marais, “Refugees, strangers and aliens? Reformation as a cry for life,” Reformed World (2019), 15–27.
18. See, generally, David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).
19. See R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 193–225.
20. See Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 712–14.