Theologizing in the Midst of Apartheid

In 1991, Dr. Coenie Burger of Stellenbosch University published his research on the state of practical theology for the South African Council of Human Science Research.[1] His research was conducted in the late 1980s, at the height of Apartheid, in part, to explore the question of whether Reformed theology offered anything unique and distinctive to the crisis within South African society at the time. Consequently, his findings have surprising relevance to the ongoing racial tension faced in American society today.

Burger began by situating South African Reformed theology in the context of the Reformed traditions of Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States as scholarship from these nations had the greatest influence on local scholarship. Though more than half of his participants were from Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist traditions, he identified two cohorts within these circles: a minority that identified as “Reformed” and a majority that did not identify with a confessional heritage yet sympathized with Reformed-sounding categories. However, Burger’s results reveal that the larger, latter group did not necessarily practice the theological categories they identified with.

The smaller, explicitly Reformed group, on the other hand, agreed that practical theology and the study of the word should 1) be in service of the church, 2) be fully theological, and 3) involve serious study of the church’s sociohistorical and cultural context.

But their responses to Burger’s questions reveal that their practice was limited to the study of the word without serious consideration for the three aspects. In fact, there was hardly any correlation between their confessional heritage and practice due to their disregard for historical and cultural context in applying theology. More specifically, he observed that their theologizing was ignorant of their South African context of racialized oppression.

Burger is joined by Prof. Piet Naudé of the same institution who observes that the white Dutch Reformed theologians during Apartheid did not see themselves as being in Africa or being African facing African issues. As evidenced in their publications, books, academic journals, etc., in their minds, they were European theologians in an imaginary European bubble writing about meta-European issues such as secularization rather than issues pertaining to their African brothers and sisters. They thought they were simply doing “theology.”[2]

These findings compel us to ask the question: Is Reformed theology defective or have these South African theologians misappropriated Reformed theology?

John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life

In his book, “Imagining a Way: Exploring Reformed Practical Theology and Ethics,” Dr. Clive Pearson seeks to answer this question by exploring Calvin’s ministry in Geneva in its historical and theological context rather than trying to define Reformed theology.

He writes, “Calvin was interested in real people…He was aware that grace calls forth gratitude, acts, indeed lives of newness, justice, fairness, compassion, freedom, equity. This is why he is often described as a true pastor, concerned with real people and their real experiences” (page 43-44).

He continues, “Calvin was also interested in the real world, in society…This is why he is known as a social humanist and why his impact on our modern world—on democratic politics, on civil society, on free-market economy, on social care, on public education, on science and scholarship, yes on today’s complex processes of globalization—can be both highly praised and furiously criticized, but hardly denied” (page 44). In other words, Calvin, one of the main progenitors of the Reformed tradition, set a precedent for a theological contextualization that sought to intersect a knowledge of God and a multifaceted knowledge of self—on both individual and corporate levels.

As a result of Pearson’s observations, we can conclude (as many other church historians have) that South African Reformed theologians misappropriated Reformed theology for the purposes (both intentional and unintentional) of sustaining and advancing “whiteness” as a social construct of oppression during Apartheid.[3] At the risk of sounding petty, stuck in their ivory towers and divorced from their confessional heritage beginning from Calvin, these theologians simply were not “Reformed” enough.

Moving Forward

As globalization brings the nations to our doorsteps, the shameful legacy of Reformed Christians in South Africa should compel Reformed Christians around the world (particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States where they share a common history of institutionalized racism and the genocidal destruction of minority groups or natives) to humbly evaluate the state of our theology.

We must ask ourselves the following questions:

  • In what ways has the culture of our Western academic and ecclesiastical institutions and our theological works contributed to Apartheid in the past?
  • In what imaginary bubbles could we possibly be doing theology while neglecting our historical and cultural context?
  • Following Calvin, what does it mean for us to advance a knowledge of God and a knowledge of self in our societies today?
  • Are we guilty of sympathizing with the Reformed tradition but disregarding its historical and cultural origins?
  • Why were the majority of Reformed theologians in America silent at the height of concepts like manifest destiny (and the destruction of Native American peoples and cultures), slavery, and segregation? Are we guilty of silence against oppressive systems again?
  • Are we inviting ethnic minorities, immigrants, and people of color in our theological conversations? Are we listening to their concerns, struggles, and pains?
  • With xenophobia, racism, and nationalism on the rise all around the world (especially in the three nations mentioned above), what are we doing to confront and dismantle “whiteness” as a social construct of oppression?

Lest we repeat history and found ourselves enabling another Apartheid, our connection to the Reformed community in South Africa should compel us to greater scrutiny and self-criticism of our educational and ecclesiastical institutions.


[1]            C. G. Burger, Praktiese teologie in Suid-Afrika: ’n Ondersoek na die denke oor sekere voorvrae van die vak (Pretoria: Raad via Geesteswetenskaplike Navorsing, 1991).

[2]            P. J. Naudé, “The DRC’s Role in the Context of Transition in South Africa: Main Streams of Academic Research,” Scriptura 76, no. 1 (2001): 87-106.

[3] George Harinck, “Abraham Kuyper, South Africa, and Apartheid,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, (2002): 184-187.

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