Joyful Theology

A few weeks ago the third
volume of the Collected
of A.A. van
Ruler arrived in my mailbox.
It was an important moment
for this pastor/theologian. My
excitement, though, hardly
compares with how a leading
Dutch theologian greeted
the appearance of the first
volume in that country. He
called it an “event of national
importance.” While van Ruler
is hardly unknown in North
America, his name would find little recognition
beyond a relatively small circle
of Reformed thinkers.

Nonetheless, the publication of his collected
works is of theological significance,
despite the fact that the collection is in
Dutch and, given the political-economics of
publishing, unlikely to be available in English
anytime in the near, or even middle,
future. How can I make such a claim?

I begin by noting that van Ruler is
one of the “big three” in twentieth century
Dutch theology. The other two, O. Noordmans
and K.H. Miskotte, are perhaps even
less known on our side of the ocean. Both
are enormously creative and influential, AA van Ruler
and their influence is found largely in Dutch
circles. Van Ruler, in some contrast, has
begun to find a hearing in other parts of
the world, specifically South Africa, Japan,
and the United States. Readers of Perspectives
would have come across his influence
through persons like Eugene Heideman,
John Bolt, Paul Fries, or even myself.

While his theology is difficult to summarize,
and indeed he did not write a full
systematic theology, it is profoundly creative and interesting. Theology,
for him, was about the joy of existence.
It is good that we humans,
and creation too, are here, that
we exist. God’s action of salvation
makes it possible not only to exist
but to exist in playful communion
with God. This scarcely ignores
the darkness of this world; this
joy is found through the cross.
Still, God refuses to be frustrated
in achieving God’s creational intentions.
His is a theology of the
future, of the kingdom of God, already
developing in the 30s and 40s of the
previous century. It was said of van Ruler
that he “thought from the future.”

Readers of this journal are more likely
to be acquainted with Hendrikus Berkhof’s
Christian Faith, a standard text in fundamental
theology, still used in Dutch universities.
Berkhof’s theology, however, is
a mild-Barthianism, which was strongly
contested by van Ruler. When Berkhof’s
justly famous book, Christ the Meaning of
, appeared, van Ruler’s review of it
was titled, “Man the Meaning of History.”
For God’s intention in the world did not
center in Christ. The Messiah furthered
God’s greater intent. The goal of God’s action
in the world is not Jesus.

Still, van Ruler did not turn away from
Christ. In fact, he worked very hard at a
full-orbed Trinitarian theology. As he put it
in a typical statement, “It all turns around
Christ, but it is all about creation.” Christ’s
work was central but it was not God’s only
work. God also worked through the Spirit.
Van Ruler’s essay, “Structural Differences
in Christology and Pneumatology,” is one
that only theologians might read, but it
stands as one of the most important theological
essays of the twentieth century.
His contributions to contemporary discussion on the Trinity alone make him
worth consulting.

If joy and play stand at the center
of his theology, his delight is not simply
the content of his theology. The collected
works open a vast archive of his work to
public scrutiny. For the first time we can
read lectures given to a vast array of audiences,
course notes, and even original
versions of articles that were completed
and published after his premature death
in 1970. Theology itself was play, delight,
for him, and these works welcome readers
into a lively theological conversation
chock full of insight and surprise upon
insight and surprise.

All of this is raw material for the theologian
and promises new conversations
around classic themes. I might add that
van Ruler could be both a philosophical
and biblical theologian at the same time.
Nor was he was a theologian for the study
only. He gave radio meditations almost
daily heard by a large Dutch audience.
His mediations sparkle with biblical and
theological insight.

Van Ruler was rather disappointed
with his reception during his lifetime.
This is not surprising. As I only hinted
above, he stood almost alone in his resistance
against the mighty force of Barthianism.
He both valued creation to a
greater degree and was much clearer in
a doctrine of the Spirit. Since Barthianism
remains regnant in much Reformed
theology, van Ruler’s voice needs to be
heard. He suggested that his theology
would find a hearing in the twenty-first
century. Whether or not that was simply
the wish of a disappointed thinker, this
centur y will prove. My guess is that
the enthusiasm with which these new
works are greeted will show him to be
prescient. In the meantime, something
significant indeed is taking place in the
theological world.

The collected works are appearing
over a number of years. At present, seven
volumes are envisioned, the next slated
to appear next year, and promises to include,
among other essays, heretofore
unpublished lectures on election!

If I may dare to say it: it’s worth
learning Dutch to read this thinker.
There, I’ve said it.

Allan Janssen is pastor of the Community Church of
Glen Rock, New Jersey.