Law, justice and justification
28 November 2019
Dear Friends and fellow Pukke
It is a great honour for me to address such an important and interesting conference at my old Alma Mater. The theme of the conference is as daunting as it is interesting - dealing as it does with ‘Reformation theology and its impact on world societies after 500 years’. I must point out at the outset that I am a lawyer and not a theologian - so offer the following comments with some trepidation.
We are at the cusp of three significant celebrations:
first the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s letter in 1520 to Pope Leo X in which he spelled out his views “Concerning Christian Liberty;”
the second is the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordrecht - which ended in 1619 - and which dealt with Arminianism and further refined and confirmed the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church; and
the third is the 150th anniversary of this university - which has its roots in the establishment of the theological seminary of the GereformeerdeKerk in South Africa in 1869.
My objective today is to examine these developments and to consider the impact that they have had on world societies, on South Africa - and on me, personally.
The three events that we are celebrating are closely linked:
Martin Luther’s doctrines were the principal fountainhead of Calvinism and of the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church that was refined and articulated at the Synod of Dort.
The Synod of Dort, in turn, was a guiding influence in the formation of the GereformeerdeKerk in South Africa in 1859 and the establishment of its theological seminary at Burgersdorp in 1869.
The new seminary had its roots in growing theological differences that had developed in the Cape during the first half of the 19th century.
Even in the remote wilderness of the Eastern Cape, there were echoes of the religious debates that were raging in the Netherlands during the mid-nineteenth century. Like their conservative counterparts in the Netherlands, many Afrikaners were deeply disturbed by growing evangelical and Methodist tendencies in their church. These tendencies had been evident during the Batavian Republic’s brief rule over the Cape between 1803 and 1806. Commissioner De Mist and Governor Janssens were steeped in the traditions of the Enlightenment and introduced strongly humanist elements into the liturgy. The New Church Order that De Mist introduced in 1804 did not even use God’s name - but referred only to the “higher Being”.
When the British took over the Cape these tendencies were reinforced by the introduction of Scottish clergymen into the leadership of the local reformed church. They included, most notably, the Reverend Andrew Murray - who had strong evangelical beliefs and who also brought the church under the influence of the British government in the Cape.
Conservative Afrikaners in the Cape were particularly disturbed by the introduction in 1814 of non-biblical hymns that they regarded as idolatrous. They identified with religious conservatives like Groen van Prinsterer the Reverend H de Cock of Ulrum in the Netherlands who also vehemently rejected the liberal and humanist tendencies that had been introduced by William I in the wake of the French Revolution. They were also influenced by Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian, politician and journalist.
Finally, in 1857, the conservatives requested the Reformed Church of the Netherlands to send them a minister who supported the reformed principles enunciated at the Synod of Dort in 1619. By coincidence, the ChristelikeGereformeerdeKerk in the Netherlands had already decided to send the Rev Dirk Postma to South Africa. Two years later, the GereformeerdeKerk of South Africa (GKSA) - also known as the Dopper Church - was established.
The Doppers founded a theological seminary at Burgersdorp in the Eastern Cape in 1869 where my grandfather studied in 1895. In 1905 the seminary moved to Potchefstroom in the Western Transvaal where it became the embryo of this university.
And so, Martin Luther’s action in nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517- and the deliberations of the Synod of Dort - played distant - but direct - roles in the establishment of Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.
Luther’s doctrines led not only to the Reformation and to seismic convulsions in the Church, they also had far-reaching political and social repercussions for the advancement of political and civil freedom.
His proclamation, in his 1520 letter to Pope Leo X, that “a Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none” was grasped by peasants and elements of the middle class in Germany as justification for overthrowing - not only a corrupt and despotic church - but also equally corrupt and repressive rulers. The Peasants’ Revolt - which swept through Germany only four years after Luther’s letter on the equality of Christians - shook German society to its foundations. It was Europe’s greatest popular uprising until the French Revolution 265 years later.
It was also not at all what Luther had had in mind: in his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther had been writing about spiritual and not political liberty. He had also stressed the importance of spiritual servitude by proclaiming that “a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone”. Luther, who was dependent on the support of the German rulers whom the peasants wanted to depose, furiously condemned them in his 1525 polemic Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants:
“The peasants have taken upon themselves the burden of three terrible sins against God and man; by this they have merited death in body and soul... they have sworn to be true and faithful, submissive and obedient, to their rulers... now deliberately and violently breaking this oath... they are starting a rebellion, and are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs... they have doubly deserved death in body and soul as highwaymen and murderers... they cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the gospel... thus they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name”.
He went so far as to invoke the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings in calling on the aristocrats to crush the rebellion. During the uprising more than 100 000 rebels were killed.
Nevertheless, the seed of political freedom had been firmly planted in the reformed community together with the seed of spiritual freedom. It germinated and was further propagated at the Synod of Dort in 1616-19. The Synod was, in effect, a worldwide gathering of reformed churches to agree on a common and universal doctrine. Its 87 delegates included 26 delegates from other countries, including England, Scotland, Geneva, Swiss cantons and a number of German states. The French Huguenots were absent because Louis XIII had forbidden them to attend.
It is no coincidence that England, Scotland and the Swiss cantons were among the first states to limit the powers of their rulers and to lay the foundations for democratic institutions. John Locke, who had an enormous impact on the evolution of democratic thought, began his career as a Calvinist Trinitarian.
The Pilgrim Fathers - an English sect of dissenting Calvinists who founded the colony of Massachusetts - were living in Leiden at the time of the Synod of Dort and must have been influenced by its doctrines before their departure for America in 1620. After their arrival in America they adopted democratic processes of government that had a lasting effect on the constitutional evolution of the United States.
It is accordingly evident that Martin Luther and the Synod of Dort played an important role in planting the seeds of individual political freedom that later germinated and blossomed into our current culture of civil and political liberty.
However, there was another freedom tradition in the scriptures that has also had a profound impact on the world - on Afrikaners and on South Africa. It relates to the freedom of peoples rather than individuals - and specifically to the Israelites’ ancient search for freedom. The Israelites had their genesis in their liberation from Egyptian subjugation, in their flight from Egypt and in the establishment of their own states in what was then known as the Land of Canaan.
Their subsequent history - after three centuries of independence - was dominated by recurrent conquests, by subjugation and by captivity: first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and the Babylonian captivity, then the Persians; then the Seleucid Greeks and the abominations of Antiochus Epiphanes. After a brief interlude of independence under the Maccabees, Israel was conquered and ruled by the Romans; then by the Byzantine Empire; then by a succession of Islamic dynasties; then by the Turks; and briefly by the British.
Finally, in 1948 the Jews re-established the State of Israel in what they believed was the fulfilment of their prophetic destiny.
The Jewish liberation and escape from the bondage of Egypt became the model and aspiration of many other subjugated peoples throughout subsequent history - including the Pilgrim Fathers who set out in 1620 to establish their own state in the American wilderness. It was also the model for generations of American slaves who saw themselves as the equivalent of the Jewish captives in Babylon: “By the waters of Babylon, where we laid down, and yea we wept when we remembered Zion”.
It was also the inspiration for many of the Boers who trekked from the valleys of the Cape in the 1830s to escape the subjugation of the British Empire. As they set out into the wilderness with their Bibles and muzzle-loading rifles - they believed that they - like the ancient Hebrews - were destined to establish their own Zions.
It was this vision that motivated Afrikaners for more than 150 years. After many hardships, it led them to establish their own republics in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Their new states were based on the principles of religious and political liberty that they had inherited from the protestant reformation.
It was this ideal of political and religious self-determination that led them twice to defend their independence against the mightiest empire of the time. After their bitter defeat in the Second War of Freedom, this vision inspired them to rise from the ashes and to rebuild their shattered people. Finally, their longing for self-determination motivated the National Party to win the 1948 election and to work for the re-establishment of a sovereign republic.
This was the world into which I was born and in which I grew up. My first memories are of sitting on the shoulders of my father at the laying of the corner stone of the Voortrekker Monument in 1938 when I was only three. As a young man I supported my uncle - Hans Strijdom - in his fiery quest for the re-establishment of a republic.
As a youthful community leader, I was enthusiastic about Hendrik Verwoerd’s grand design of a Commonwealth of Southern African states in which black South Africans would theoretically enjoy the same right to self-determination that we claimed for ourselves. As a Cabinet Minister in the 1970s and 1980s I began to see how impossible this grand design would prove to be. Instead of creating justice for all - it had clearly resulted in gross injustice for millions of black, Coloured and Indian South Africans.
Apart from the precepts of spiritual liberty, salvation and faith that are at the heart of our reformed religion, there are also core values taught to us by Jesus on how we should relate to our fellow men. His Ministry was suffused with compassion for the poor, the weak, the sick and the outcasts. He said that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me.” He also said “Therefore, whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” In considering the nature of the law, Jesus agreed that one should ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’, and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
If we Doppers differed from members of other reformed churches it was perhaps in our tendency to start our examination of issues from the principles involved - and then to extrapolate the actions that should be taken in conformity with such principles.
It meant that we were perhaps more consistent and rigorous than others in the implementation of separate development - but also, that once we had concluded that it was the cause of injustice and stood no chance of bringing about a just settlement, we were equally consistent in our rejection of the policy and in our determination to find other principle-based solutions.
During the 1980s it became increasingly difficult for me and my colleagues to ignore the reality of injustice in our country. We also realised that it would be politically and economically impossible for us to maintain our untrammelled right to self-determination in a country in which we constituted a small and diminishing minority. We dug deep into the traditions and experience of democracy and individual freedom that had been so strongly influenced by the founders of our reformed tradition.
We hammered these principles into a new constitution that we negotiated with representatives of all our fellow South Africans. We believed that they presented a sound foundation for our new society, based as they were on human dignity, the advancement of equality and the achievement of human rights and freedoms; non-racialism and non-sexism; the Rule of Law and the supremacy of the Constitution; and the maintenance of a genuine multiparty democracy that is accountable, responsive and open.”
Did our efforts to promote justice endow us with moral justification?
In my view they did succeed - for some time at least - in promoting earthly justice and political freedom. However, they did not provide the justification that can be achieved only through faith - nor did they achieve Martin Luther’s conception of Christian liberty.
Our new Constitution included virtually all the rights that had been proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, the Universal Declaration has helped to promote a fairer, kinder and more equal world. But it has now become the secular creed of a new generation who no longer accept or understand the need for faith. This new creed has become the basis for post-modern identity politics and for new forms of political conformity.
It is an excellent manifestation of what Luther would have called “good works.”
In his view, although ‘good works’ mean nothing without faith, he does not condemn them:
“…nay, we set the highest value on them; but we condemn the belief in works, which no one should consider to constitute true righteousness ...But since human nature and natural reason, as they call it, are naturally superstitious, and quick to believe that justification can be attained by any laws or works proposed to them, and since nature is also exercised and confirmed in the same view by the practice of all earthly lawgivers, she can never of her own power free herself from this bondage to works, and come to a recognition of the liberty of faith.”
Luther’s view on the true nature of Christian liberty is clear:
“One thing, and one thing alone, is necessary for life, justification and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as He says ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in Me shall not die eternally,’ and also ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’; and man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’”
Such is the nature of true liberty. Such is the justification that comes only through faith.
Issued by FW de Klerk Foundation, 28 November 2019