September 22, 1909 - April 30, 1952
DIVINI MINISTER - by Dr. K.Deddens
The letter to the Hebrews admonishes us, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith" (13:7). One of those leaders who indeed spoke to us the Word of God was Professor B. Holwerda, who died thirty-five years ago at the age of forty-two years, after a professorate of six years and a ministry, preceeding it of eleven years.
When the Rev. B. Holwerda was a minister of the Church at Amersfoort, he studied especially the exegesis of the New Testament. However, the Synod of Enschede, 1945, appointed him as professor of the Old Testament Department. I could write here about the results of his studies as a scholar and tell about the impressive way in which he gave his lectures, but, I think Holwerda's greatest significance lies in his preaching of the Word of God and in his teaching regarding it. This influence is still there, also in the Canadian Reformed Churches. I mention this with great gratitude.
Holwerda himself saw in the title "Verbi Divini Minister" the highest honour and the greatest task that God could give to man. Therefore, in this article, we will remember and honour this gifted servant of the LORD by paying attention to his significance for the Reformed, Scriptural proclamation of His Word.
During the time that Holwerda was a student in Kampen, around 1930, a kind of revival in the preaching began in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. A leader in this movement was the late Professor Dr. K. Schilder. While he was still a minister in Rotterdam, Schilder wrote his impressive, three volume book, Christ in His Suffering. In it, Schilder constantly pointed at the unity of the one history of redemption, and he stimulated an approach to Scripture that was different from the so-called exemplary approach, with the emphasis on man and his (experiential) assurance of faith. Schilder wrote, for instance: Here and there we still encounter Lenten sermons in which the figures around Christ receive the primary attention. There is a talk of Judas, Peter, Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, Mary, etc .... (their inner conflict, their comfort, their hardening hearts), while the first and foremost question is forgotten, namely, what Christ has done, what God has let His Son experience, what the Son has experienced in and through the actions of those around Him.
Holwerda was very impressed by Schilder's approach and when he became a minister of the Church at Kantens (in the province of Groningen) in the same year that K. Schilder became professor, he tried to administer the Word of God in that Christological, redemptive-historical way. And when this movement of revival in the preaching grew during the thirties, Holwerda was fully involved in it. The Church at Amersfoort, his second congregation since June, 1938, received the benefits from it. And many members in the Reformed Churches in those days experienced this redemptive-historical way of preaching as a new spring, as new life, over against all kinds of psychological and subjective ways of preaching in which man, unbelieving or believing man, with his experiences was in the centre.
A few examples may illustrate what is meant. In a speech, held in 1942 for a ministers' conference, which is published in ". . . Begonnen hebbende van Mozes . . . ," Holwerda gives a picture of the exemplary, subjective, moral, psychological, man-centred method of reading, explaining, and proclaiming the Word of God. The history of Abraham in Genesis 12 becomes a moral lesson about the "white lie." Abraham's test of faith or temptation in connection with God's command to sacrifice lsaac, recorded in Genesis 22, becomes an example for our struggle of faith. The message of Elijah's prayer is then that we have to learn to pray like he did. And a sermon on John 20:24-29, where we read about the doubt of Thomas, becomes a lesson about doubt. In this exemplary approach, the Bible is seen as a book that contains a whole lot of, e.g., moral, psychological, spiritual lessons; a book filled with human experiences that can be used as examples for us.
Holwerda, and others, following. K. Schilder, did not deny the exemplary aspect, nor that in the exemplary method many true things were said. But the question was whether with that method the main and proper thing had been said: the place, the significance, the function of that specific text in the whole of God's revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Holwerda, with many others, saw that in the exemplary method the main point had been missed. Not God, but man, pious man, doubting man, the Christian, with all his problems and troubles, was in the centre. So, not God, not Christ Jesus was seen on the pages of Scripture, and was preached as Saviour and Redeemer, but actually, men and women as examples for us.
We must keep in mind that we have to do with historical texts in the above examples. Genesis 12 and 22, I Kings 18 and John 20 are not Psalms or Proverbs, but history. They are parts of the history, in which God is continuing to do His great work of redemption in the coming Christ and the Christ who has come, respectively. And in this continuing history He uses people like Abraham, Elijah, Thomas, each one wherever he has his own place. In that history He calls them to fulfill their calling and task in His service. Hereby it is God's own work of grace through the Holy Spirit that He prepares these human instruments for the task they have to fulfil in that specific situation at that particular time of that on-going history. And since that history still goes on, and we have our place in that same history as well, as believers, as church members, God calls also us to be faithful wherever we are placed in that on-going history with its many facets and aspects.
The exemplary method of reading and explaining Scripture and preaching it, meant a loss of depth and a psychological or experiential generalization of a certain specific historical text that deals in a prophetic way with a specific moment in that one history of God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ with which the Holy Spirit wants to touch us, guide us, and encourage us.
Certainly, God-centred, Christological preaching of God's Word, did not lose attention for man and his needs. But man and his needs received their proper place, their Scriptural place, not as in the centre, but as in God's service, on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.
When the Second World War had started, K. Schilder was imprisoned, and after having been set free he was forbidden to publish anything. In those days B. Holwerda, although he was only 32-years-old, delivered his famous speech at a ministers' conference (which was mentioned above already), "The History of Redemption in the Preaching of the Gospel." In that speech he worked out what he had practised for many years already, very clearly placing the redemptivehistorical way of preaching over against the exemplary method. Part of that speech follows here. To the ministers present at that conference, he showed that the danger of the exemplary method is that it:
Ignores the context and dissolves an ENTIRE history into a large collection of independent stories (fragments), and loses both (historical) "unity" and "progress." It is clear where this method leads as far as the history of redemption is concerned: by this fragmentary method, one simply blocks the way to preaching effectively on these historical materials. And because those who use the exemplary method have severed the historical bond between Abraham, David, and ourselves - the bond of the relationship to the one, ever-growing redemptive work of God in Christ - they must now construct another connection in order to be still able to make an application. And usually they do this in the following manner: instead of recognizing the historical connection, they search for the unity in a psychological resemblance.
Or to say it more precisely: one has here a shift from the history of redemption to the ordo salutis, which is so characteristic of Philo. As for Philo, Lagrange has defined his method very keenly as follows: He transposed history into the domain of religious philosophy. He did not evaporate history to the point of denying its existence, but the principal lesson of history became moral instruction. Philo's view can be described in this way: that God, instead of leading Israel's destiny by means of his revelation toward the Messiah, showed that He kept a watchful eye on the moral perfecting of each soul in particular.
Also Philo lost view of the history of redemption. Also for him all the parts of the historical books were independent stories with a moral lesson. He read into each story that which God did for every individual soul, and then drew a parallel with what God is doing for our own soul. Instead of maintaining the history character of the historical parts of the Old Testament in which everyone has his own time and place and function, Philo set forth the ordo salutis, which is the same for all.
An explanatory remark is in place here. With "ordo salutis" is meant the order of God's salvation work in a man's heart and life. For instance, God comes with His grace, and regenerates a person, making him a believer, giving him a renewed will, so that he turns away from sin to serve the Lord. Philo was a Jewish philosopher in the first part of the first century A.D. He tried to combine his Jewish faith with Greek philosophy in which human virtue had a most important place. This meant adapting that Jewish faith to Greek philosophy. In order to accomplish this adaptation, Philo used the allegorical method of explaining the Old Testament Scriptures.
When Philo, e.g., explains the meaning of Genesis 2:10-14, about the four rivers in paradise, we get the following: "In these words Moses intends to sketch out the particular virtues. And they, also, are four in number, prudence, temperance, courage, and justice." (The Allegories of the Sacred Laws, book I, 19.)
An example of the allegorical method in a mystical way is the following: Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, the place where Christ was to be born. So our souls must also make the trip that brings them to that destination where Christ can be born in them.
But let us return to the speech of Holwerda. He said:
Allegory is also far from dead: Matthew 8:23ff (the storm on the Sea of Galilee) often receives an application which deals with the spiritual storms on the "sea of life"; Luke 24:29 (the request of the men of Emmaus to Christ: stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now spent) is applied in the style of "Abide with me."
With this exemplary method the preacher seeks a parallel between the situation in which God was something for the Biblical saints and situations in which He will be the same for us. The doubt of John the Baptist and Thomas is then compared with our doubt. The testing of the faith of Abraham and of the Canaanite woman in the gospels is compared with the testing of our faith. But since no one can have a doubt precisely like John the Baptist or Thomas, or the testing of faith of Abraham, the consequence is that one is compelled to drop the peculiarity of Thomas' doubt and of the testing of Abraham's faith. Thus one is forced to speak of doubt, the testing of faith, and so on, in general, abstracted from the main point in the text.
You must understand me well. Some apparently suppose that the redemptive-historical method chooses to know exclusively about the "way of Christ," and that it sacrifices all else in the text; that it would ignore a certain instant that speaks of God's work in us; that it would have no consideration for the spiritual life of Thomas, etc. But nothing is less true. A text is composed of a multitude of elements, and all ought to be considered.
So far a rendering of parts of the speech of Holwerda. We may add that, indeed, the proper redemptive-historical method pays full attention to man and the work of God in his heart and life, man and his calling in the covenant of grace and in the kingdom of God. However, with this method, which is Christological, God always is in the centre, while man receives attention as he hears the promise of redemption in Christ, and as he is called to faith and repentance and service.
All kinds of criticism were brought in against this redemptive-historical method of preaching. It was leading to schematism, to speculation, to objectivism, and so on. One can read more about this in the dissertation of Dr. Sidney Greydanus, Sola Scriptura, (Kok, Kampen, 1970), in which the author approaches the redemptive-historical method from a critical point of view. It was also said that Christological preaching did not do justice to the work of the Triune God, and neglected especially the work of God the Holy Spirit.
Also recently it has been said again that in stressing the history of salvation, the order of salvation does not receive enough attention. In this manner Dr. C. Trimp wrote, more or less in Heilsgeschiedenis en Prediking (Redemptive History and the Preaching) (Kampen, 1986).
Of course, not everything is to be derived from the one speech of Prof. B. Holwerda, nor may we say that he has the final say in preaching. However, I would like to give some illustrations, in order to show that most of the time the criticism is not valid. I start with the really theocentric conclusion of Holwerda's essay on Matthew 1:17, "The Week of God's work of redemption," in De Verborgenheid der Godzaligheid (the mystery of our religion, cf. I Tim. 3:16) in which the trinitary aspect is very clear. Holwerda says there under the heading "The week of the Triune God":
God the Father worked six days, and then went to celebrate His sabbath. God the Son worked six times seven generations, and He, too, went in to His rest. The creation sabbath has been saved through the work of God the Son. The redemption sabbath is preserved in the work of God the Holy Spirit, during forty-two months. The Spirit works until now. The church can possibly be threatened, and the preaching opposed, but His work goes on, fortunately.
The week of work of the Spirit has not yet come to an end. At which "month" has He arrived? Do not ask that, but believe that He continues His work just as regularly as the Father and the Son. Also the Spirit is on His way, with a firm step, toward His sabbath.
The question is: Did Holwerda pay enough attention to the work of the Holy Spirit? But time and again one can read about the work of the Spirit in his sermons. An illustration is a sermon on Judges 6:33 - 7:14 in Een Levende Hoop (Vol. II, Enschede, 1953): The Spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon:
"Then the Spirit of the LORD put on Gideon." That is the core of the report.
Easily we explain this in the following way: Gideon stood up, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, so that he became eager to fight and take hold of his weapon. By doing this we have corrupted the text, for in this way it is Gideon who is acting after the Spirit has given him the necessary faith.
However, the text says it in such a beautiful way: the Spirit of the LORD put on Gideon, as one puts on a coat. You know how that goes. When we are about to do a certain job, we put on the proper clothes. A doctor puts on his white doctor's coat, a labourer in a factory his overalls, a servant-girl her apron, a swimmer his swim wear. Those clothes per se do not do anything; they are only the cover in which one wraps himself, when he is about to do his work. Now so it says here: the Spirit of the LORD put on Gideon .... So who is it who comes to action here? It is not Gideon, but the Spirit of God. Gideon is only the instrument of which He avails Himself. The LORD stands up for battle.
And only because the Spirit starts moving and uses Gideon, this man blows the trumpet and calls the men to battle. But it is the war of the LORD, it is the fight of the Spirit of God, of which we read here.
Was Holwerda's preaching too objective, too schematic, too speculative? Did he not pay enough attention to the order of salvation? Let us listen to his moving sermon on Psalm 139, prepared after the passing away of his little daughter:
When he [David] curses the enemies of God, then this is not with the arrogant pride which says: something like that could never happen to me. But then there is with him the fear and trembling which says: if I were left to myself, I could come to do the same thing. For what is not going on in my own heart! That is why, in the end, he prays for the very thing which, in the beginning, he confessed to be the richness of his life: "Search me, O God, and know my heart. "
LORD, Thou knowest everything of me. Thou lookest straight through me. That is Thy love for me. For me in my small life. For me in this big world. For me from birth to grave. Thou who in Thy love knowest and searchest my thoughts, continue, please, this work of Thy grace. Let Thy love hold on to me, in my sitting, and in my standing, in my rising up and in my sleeping. And especially in my thoughts! "Try me, and know my thoughts!" For in what I am thinking there is not much that is nice and good. So easily my fretting, my worrying, my brooding, produces sin. There are so many who hate Thee. I do not do that. And I do not want to. But my heart, too, is so sinful; and what my heart comes up with is by nature just as evil. And before I knew it, I, too, could come to such an "offensive way" that leads me to an abyss and brings me to the company of men of blood. Interfere, therefore, in my thinking, Thou who knowest everything of it. Keep Thyself, in love, busy with me. Lead me away from my evil thoughts, my evil ways. "And lead me on the way everlasting. " On the way that abides and leads to the eternal joy.
LORD, with my whole heart have I said "yes" to Thee, who dost fathom me and know me. I have said "no" to those who hate Thee. But do not surrender me to myself and the passions of my heart.
LORD, I have said: Thou art always beside me. Please abide, with Thy grace, near me, Lord Jesus, in order that never the dominion of the enemy may hurt me.
This prayer certainly will be heard by God.
Beloved, I have preached to you who the LORD is for His people, for every one of His children. Will now also give Him this answer, all of you:
For this God is our God!
And do this as personal as David did it here:
Thou art my portion, my happy lot,
impossible to separate through either time or eternity.
Thou wilt lead me even until death.
And when I wake up, then I am still . . . with Thee!
It strikes us how timely the sermons of Prof. B. Holwerda were, with their application and approbation. In the work of this true Verbi Divini Minister we have a very rich inheritance. Neglecting it will be to our detriment only. Therefore, let us preserve this inheritance and pass it on to the next generations, especially of the ministers of God's Word. But also the congregation has to know, since she is called to test "prophecies" and hold fast what is good, I Thess. 20ff.