Interview with I. John Hesselink


John Hesselink

(Editors’ Note: Few people have left as many fingerprints on the Reformed Church in America in recent decades as I. John Hesselink–seminary president and professor, foreign missionary and General Synod president. In addition, Hesselink has been a leading figure in Calvin and Barth studies worldwide. Perhaps most fascinating are Hesselink’s “famous friends”–Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, the prominent Swiss neo-orthodox theologians, and more recently writer Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, The Death of Adam). The following interview was conducted by Steve Mathonnet-Vander- Well.)

In this day when academic lineage is traced with phrases like “grandchild of Barth” or even “great-grandchild of Barth,” how is it to be a “child of Barth”? What can you tell us about what it was like to study with Karl Barth? What was he like as a professor and a person?

First, a little story: I recently taught a short-term course for four young women. They said, “We hear you know all sorts of stories about Karl Barth.” They were quite excited about all this. At the end of the course, they wanted to have some pictures taken. They wrote above our group picture, “Grandchildren of Karl Barth”!

The fact that I studied with Karl Barth is all due to a Swiss missionary friend, Werner Kohler. I believe strongly in the providence of God, in that if Kohler had not been a friend and I had not impressed him on the basis of just a few missionary encounters in Japan, I never would have ended up in Basel. I had become quite interested in G.C. Berkouwer, so I thought about going to the Netherlands but I didn’t know Dutch. My Swiss missionary friend knew it was in the works for me to work on a doctorate during my first furlough. He knew that I had been doing some work on Calvin, on Law and Gospel. He said, “That’s a good subject. I think Karl Barth would be interested in that. You ought to study with Barth.” He said, “Write out a little resume.” He gave me a little pad of paper and I wrote out something on my knee, sitting in his office in Kyoto. He looked at it said, “That’s nice.” I asked, “Aren’t you going to type it up?” He said, “If I can read it, Karl Barth can read it.”

But I said, “I don’t know any German!” “I’ll see if I can arrange for you to stay with Oscar Cullmann in a venerable institution called the Theologishes Alumneum”–a sixteenth century building, originally built for eastern Europeans, Hungarians and so forth, studying in Basel. It was a place for sixteen to eighteen students, mostly from abroad: Austrian, Finnish, Australian, South African. Cullmann and his sister ran the place. Kohler advised me to spend a semester there, without my family, and then I should be able to have some grasp of German. It was a great idea. I had read Cullmann’s Christ and Time so this prospect alone was very exciting.

Within one month, I had letters from both Cullmann and Barth. Cullman saying, “We would be happy to have you stay with us for that first semester.” We had devotions every morning with Cullmann–quite an experience. From Barth, he said that Werner Kohler had told him about me. “Your subject is interesting. If you’re willing to take a chance, I’m an old man now, we’d be pleased to welcome you to Basel.” He never even saw my transcript. Very different from today. No GRE or anything like that! Talk about miraculous and providential. I headed off for Basel, while Etta, my wife, and our kids–we had three then–stayed with her parents in Iowa that first semester. It was embarrassing at first because I knew less German than anyone in the building. I’d listen to lectures, take notes and then go back and check them out in a German dictionary. That’s how I picked up German, largely by osmosis.

At this point, you already were familiar with Emil Brunner?

Yes, that was also very exciting. Back in seminary, Brunner and Barth were both sort of hot items. Brunner was being read much more at that time because not much of Barth had yet been translated. We arrived in Japan in August of 1953, right out of Western Seminary. After I got there, one of the missionaries said, “Did you know Emil Brunner is coming to be the first visiting professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo?” I was committed to language school at the time so I thought I’d probably not get to hear him. But it was announced he would do a series of lectures on Saturday mornings for pastors and missionaries, in English and translated into Japanese, on “Christianity and Existentialism.” There must of have been 100 people out every Saturday morning for these lectures. Then Brunner said he would be leading a seminar on Karl Jaspers’ Way to Wisdom, for about twenty people. How people did or didn’t get into that seminar I don’t really know, but anyway I was one of the twenty people.There was also a CRC missionary in the seminar and three of the twenty were from the RCA. But there were also several from big name schools like Yale, Union, and Princeton. At that point I was intimidated by these guys. Here I’d only gone to Central College and Western Seminary. But Brunner was more impressed with some of us than others, and after the semester he invited a half-dozen of us to meet with him in his home, once a month, just to talk theology. Then Brunner was invited to give that same lecture series at Tokyo University, which was a real coup because Tokyo University at that point was the “Harvard of Japan” so a lecture series on Christianity in that context was significant. But there was a lot of thievery in Japan in those days, due to poverty still from the war. Brunner’s briefcase was stolen out of his car and in it was his lecture notes. Someone told him that “John Hesselink takes good notes” and maybe he could reconstruct his lectures from them. They drove out to our tiny place, arrived probably around 8 PM. The doorbell rang and there was Emil Brunner! Etta was in bed because she was having a difficult pregnancy. We had diapers strung all across the apartment drying!

Brunner ended up giving those lectures from my notes, although they were really more than notes because he would speak in English and then the translator would speak in Japanese, so I had an almost complete transcription. Here and there in the margin, I had made little criticisms or snide comments, but Brunner never mentioned that. That’s how the relationship with Brunners began. Mrs. Brunner felt very concerned for Etta with our young children. She became almost like a mother to our family. We were very close.

Judging from your work, especially your book, Calvin’s Concept of the Law, which I presume is basically your dissertation, it seems like when Barth differs from Calvin, you generally side with Calvin. How did Barth deal with this?

This is one of the great things about Barth; he could tolerate differences. Sometimes in graduate school, if you differ from your professor, you might as well forget about it. Early on–the second chapter is about the Law of Creation and Natural Law–I remember Barth saying, “Well, Herr Hesselink (we were speaking in German by this point, although Barth’s English was pretty good) I see that you don’t have any problems with Calvin on Natural Law.” Hesselink and BarthI replied, “No, not really. He differs from Aquinas and the Medieval tradition in some respects. Calvin’s view of sin is such that Natural Law doesn’t play that positive of a role, but it is still significant. And I think it is biblical.” Barth shook his head and said, “Stoicism, stoicism…” He didn’t like it, but he never made me change a line. By the way, every time I finished a chapter, I’d give it to Barth and I’d get it back within the week! You couldn’t have asked for a more genial, delightful mentor, or the lovely German term, Doktorvater.

I remember my first semester in Basel when he and I debated the interpretation of Romans 2:14-15 in an English colloquy. So for roughly an hour and a half we went back and forth. Afterwards, various friends came up to me and said, “You didn’t win, but you didn’t lose either. Against Karl Barth to end up with a stalemate, you ought to feel pretty good!” It might have seemed like a stupid thing to do, to challenge your professor, but I think Barth appreciated that somebody was willing to stand up and engage in serious dialogue with him.

But he was nice to other people as well. Word got out, because I could speak Japanese, that when Japanese, Taiwanese, or Koreans (all of them spoke Japanese because they’d been occupied) came to Basel, if they wanted to meet with Barth, to go through Hesselink. If they had a genuine question he was happy to entertain them. But then his sense of humor would come through and he’d say, “If they just want to look at me, they had better go to the zoo. The monkeys are more interesting!” Another time, I remember someone praising his Church Dogmatics and Barth said, “I can see in heaven I’ll be pulling a little cart with my Church Dogmatics in it and the Lord will say, ‘Karl, that doesn’t do you any good up here!'” I saw him get angry only once. A student cited Scripture in a way that we would say was a spotten, a smart-aleck remark, and Barth snapped right back at him, “We don’t use Scripture in that way.”

Even if you are more a Calvinist than a Barthian, what did you learn from Barth? How has he influenced your thinking?

Principally in two areas. When I went to Basel, I was a pretty traditional Calvinist. That is, I thought largely in terms of the sovereignty and providence of God. Barth’s radical Christocentrism was impressive. He has been accused of Christomonism, but I don’t think that is fair. The other thing was his theological exegesis, in contrast to the typical historical-critical approach which is often sterile. Conservatives often question Barth’s view of Scripture, but here Barth may have been better in practice than in theory. He always took all of Scripture seriously and treated it with great reverence.

What about your role in the meeting or even reconciliation between Barth and Brunner?

They always had a relationship that was a little bit on the edge. Early on they were part of a journal,Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the Times), with people like Gogarten and Bultmann. But it wasn’t only their great debate on natural theology in 1934 that strained their relationship. There were prior tensions. Brunner had written on the “other task of theology.” He liked the word “eristic” rather than apologetic, attacking and engaging the powers of evil, rather than an explanatory, defensive posture. Of course Barth didn’t like that. For Barth there was only one task of theology. It was not the apologetic task. The only apologetic was simply to proclaim the Gospel. Other tensions were developing. Brunner was slightly critical of Barth’s commentary on Romans. All these things were festering along the way. But Barth had shown a sign of good will when Brunner left for Japan; Barth went to the Zurich airport to see him off.

The Brunners had sort of “adopted” our kids. We would visit them in Zurich and have delightful times with them and we kept inviting them to visit us in Basel. In November of 1960, Mrs. Brunner drew me aside and said, “It would we be good if ‘our men’ would get together. It is a long time since they have talked with each other. This is not good. When we visit you, would you arrange for us to visit Barth and his wife? I haven’t seen her in 30 years. But don’t approach Barth directly and I won’t tell my husband. Do it as diplomatically as possible through Fräulein Von Kirschbaum (Barth’s assistant).” I agreed and went back to Basel.

Nine out of ten times when you called the Barth home, his wife or Fraulein Von Kirschbaum would answer. Lo and behold, this time Barth answered the phone. I was speaking in German so I wasn’t quite as adroit as I might have been in English. I said, “The Brunners are coming to visit us and they would like to see you too.” I’ll never forget his German response, “Ach, ein grosses historische Ereignis!” Freely translated that would be “Wow, that is going to be a great, historic event!” Kind of tongue-in-cheek, but still. The thing that amazed me was on the Tuesday before the Brunners were to arrive on a Saturday, after a colloquium Barth called me over. I remember how he’d wag his finger to call me over. He said to me “What will we talk about?” He was nervous and didn’t want any further decline in their relationship. “One thing, we must not get going on is the arming of the Swiss air force with nuclear weapons”–which was a hot political issue of the time. Brunner was a hawk and Barth was more of a dove in terms of communism. Brunner was very anti-communist.

On the given day, we picked up the Brunners at the train station in our little car. Neither Barth nor Brunner had a car. They rarely used taxis but would travel around by tram. Six of us met in Barth’s study–the Barths, the Brunners, Fraulein Von Kirschbaum, and I. I was making chitchat with her, but keeping an ear to Barth and Brunner’s conversation. We went there at 10 o’clock and about quarter to twelve, Brunner raised the issue of the Swiss air force. Barth looked at me kind of frantically. Fortunately it was nearly time for lunch, so I was able say “We really should go. Etta is expecting us at noon.” So it ended peacefully. Brunner had brought along a copy of the recently completed third volume of his Dogmatics to present to Barth. Barth faked it, acted very pleased, but he had already read it, and was not very happy with parts of it! On the drive from Barth’s home to our place with the Brunners, Mrs. Brunner asked her husband, “How did it go?” Brunner responded, “I don’t remember much, but it was good.” The next time I saw Barth, he asked how the Brunners felt. I told him they were delighted and he responded, “I am at peace.”

In 1966, we returned to Europe, the idea being to visit Brunner and Barth. Unfortunately, Brunner had died a couple months before we arrived. We had a lovely visit with Mrs. Brunner, where I learned the account of the wonderful ending of their relationship, which I’ve written up in Donald Mc Kim’s book, How Barth Changed My Mind. Barth heard that Brunner was very ill. First, he wrote to Mrs. Brunner, expressing his concern. Then Barth heard that Brunner was nearing death, so Barth wrote to Peter Vogelzanger, Brunner’s pastor, saying, “I’m writing to you because I don’t know if Brunner is still alive, but if he is, would you please deliver this letter.” It was a very brief letter. In effect Barth wrote, “Unfortunately our relationship has been dominated too much by negativity”–playing off the word nein. “But I want to affirm you, as our Lord has affirmed us”–drawing from his favorite passage in 2 Corinthians 1:19, (“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you…was not ‘Yes and No;’ but in him it is always ‘Yes'”.)–“That is my last word to you.” Vogelzanger rushed to hospital and gave the letter to Brunner. He read it, smiled, and died the next day.

Shifting to another one of your “famous friends,” you were familiar with Marilynne Robinson long before the best selling, Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. How did this come about?

I follow contemporary literature rather closely but I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson, even though her first novel, Housekeeping, received some awards and much critical acclaim. We were visiting our daughter in New Jersey in 1998 and I picked up her Sunday New York Times. Hesselink and RobinsonThe first thing I go for is the book review magazine. There was this headline, “Calvin Got a Bad Rap”. My heart began to pound! Is this my Calvin? Sure enough, it was a very positive review of The Death of Adam, a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson. If I hadn’t seen that review, I probably wouldn’t be aware of the book. It got good reviews but rather limited exposure within somewhat smaller, literary circles. Not a splashy sort of book. But I thought, “I’ve got to get this book. Who is this woman who teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa?” After reading it, I wrote her a letter and told her I was astounded and pleased. That’s how our friendship started.

Now she occasionally sends me things to read and critique. I can be very candid with her. In one of her essays, she calls herself a “liberal.” I wrote to her and said, “Given what you say about modernity, you can’t be a liberal.” Obviously we get along pretty well.

Robinson’s nonfiction is typically written in a very direct, refreshing way. It has an original, almost daring tone. She seems to sally forth, often against the grain.

She doesn’t have all that much theological background. She goes directly to the sources themselves. She doesn’t let herself be distracted too much by secondary literature. She doesn’t feel the need to be constrained by academic expectations and trappings. She once told me that she believes her topics are too important to be aimed at a narrow audience. She has an inimitable style, really intentionally writing in almost a semi-popular tone. I call her a true “renaissance woman” who writes on so many subjects, so knowledgably and so trenchantly. She spoke to the Unitarians on Calvin, and they told her that if Calvin was anything like what she had presented, then perhaps they could take to Calvin as well! She’s had an amazing outreach.

What about theology today? What trends do you see? What pleases you? What troubles you? Who do you like to read?

One of the things I find very encouraging is that theology is in many ways back in the forefront again. In the 1960’s theology was written off–“the death of God” theology, situation ethics, secular theology, etc. When Gabe Fackre was President of the American Theological Society–this must of have been about ten years ago–in his address he listed off all sorts of recent systematic theologies, people of all stripes. I find the comeback of systematic theology encouraging. Don Bloesch’s seven volume systematic theology is just a remarkable achievement.

Neo-liberal theology, a chastened liberalism, is also making sort of a comeback. I think of Gary Dorrien, who was nearby at Kalamazoo College, a brilliant guy, very evenhanded. It is not my theology, but I can respect it and dialogue with it. Bill Placher is more middle-of-the-road. But he is very solid and creative. N.T. Wright is always fresh and stimulating. I really like the work of Colin Gunton. His death was tragic. I’ve been reading almost everything he wrote. He appreciated the Reformed tradition and Calvin. I’ve read most of Pannenberg, but he impresses me as dry and scholastic. Ju rgen Moltmann seems always trying to be “with it” in regard to political issues. Someone I like very much, although she hasn’t written that much yet, is Ellen Charry of Princeton Seminary. Here we have theology that is pastoral and has a heart. Perhaps most importantly, I am making my way through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics as these volumes appear. This is rich fare and very satisfying, not what is often thought of as staid Dutch theology. Of course I read a lot within Calvin studies. I’m also asked to review all sorts of works.

Things I find discouraging include the way that process theology has been in vogue in more liberal circles, although I think it is passing a little bit. I think it is a dead end. In my work on providence, I’ve argued that there really is no hope in process theology for there is no resurrection. Another thing that disturbs me is this “openness of God” theology, coming from the evangelical side! I just completed a response on providence to John Sanders and his openness of God perspective. I find it amazing that these people claim to be evangelicals. It is simply Arminianism with a vengeance, where God has no specific foreknowledge. And these things are best sellers; along with the books by Borg and Spong and their ilk, a sort of neo-Gnosticism. I find this disconcerting.

What about your work today?

I retired nine years ago, although every year I serve as the advisor to an international Th.M. student at Western Seminary. I enjoy this very much. Having lived overseas and having wrestled with foreign languages, I think I can relate to what they are facing. I still teach from time to time, when a need arises at the seminary. I’ve received many lecture invitations, mostly from overseas. Three years ago I lectured on “Calvin and the Holy Spirit,” five different lectures at three different Presbyterian seminaries in Brazil. Last year I gave one of the plenary addresses at the International Calvin Conference in Germany. I’ve recently received invitations to speak in Korea, Kenya, and also in South Africa. I don’t know if I can handle all these. I also continue to write a great deal, essays, reviews, chapters in books, that sort of thing. This is all very stimulating and fulfilling. I thank God for the good health that enables me to do all these things.

Stephen Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and adjunct professor of religion at Central College.