The Witness

Revisiting Apartheid and Reformed Theology: Who Is To Blame?

Moses Y. Lee

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.

9 thoughts on “Revisiting Apartheid and Reformed Theology: Who Is To Blame?

  1. see this site

    magnificent submit, very informative. I wonder why the opposite specialists of this sector do not understand this. You must proceed your writing. I’m confident, you have a great readers’ base already!

  2. Toviyah

    Sorry for getting way off the topic of the original post. But isn’t salvation (being rescued from the penalty and power of sin) an experience of God’s power to change the person? It’s something that a person actually experiences (i.e. he/she become a new creature). Please correct my understanding about salvation as an experience, if it’s wrong. Thanks.

  3. h l munsey

    i believe i know what you’re saying. no one learns of CHRIST by what anyone ‘experienced’. it’s THE WORD OF GOD THAT SAVES. yes i can and do tell what CHRIST has done for me, but i lead people to THE WORD. the burden of proof is THE LIVING WORD, not anything that has happened in my life. and you or anyone else can ‘believe’ that experience of GOD is what matters most , but it’s not. experience ‘can’t and doesn’t’ save. (only) the WORD of THE TRIUNE GOD. (and that’s a fact’.

  4. Moses Lee

    Hi Scott,
    I’m not sure if I would go as far as to say the root of many Reformed theologians’ tendencies to be racist is the Westminster Standards or Reformed theology itself. In the end, any document, including Scripture, can be misappropriated to justify any form of hatred and oppression. In fact, there have been many beautiful things about racial reconciliation and diversity that have been stated by Reformed theologians via Reformed theology (such as this website). So even though people of various cultures can weaponize whatever they want in order to oppress others, for white racist Reformed theologians, the root of their racism is the social construct of whiteness (which is different from being white since POCs can also adopt whiteness as a social construct) as stated in my article above.

  5. Scott M Roney

    See also: https://matthewtuininga.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/anthony-bradley-on-criticizing-the-puritans-the-reformed-tradition-and-racism/

    Although I am neither a pastor nor a theologian, may I suggest an explanation?

    The root of Reformed theology’s compromises with racism and injustice is in the Westminster Catechism’s implicit dismissal of the Second Greatest Commandment. The WC’s claim that the “chief end of man” is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” is more or less a restatement of Jesus’ description of the Greatest Commandment: to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” (Matthew 22:37).

    But Jesus gave us TWO chief ends (plural). He refused to summarize the entire Law in a single commandment. He gave us a secondary end of mankind: to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). By presuming that loving our neighbor is merely a means to the singular chief end of glorifying God, the WC opened the door to the possibility that we could mistreat others and – so long as we had apparent social justification – still glorify God.

  6. Toviyah

    Have you ever ‘known’ that God has answered one of your prayers ? I ask this question merely for reflection.


  7. h l munsey

    thank you toviyah for your response. as scripture states JESUS said LEARN (OF) ME. JESUS IS SAYING ‘LEARN WHO I AM’. not what one ‘wishes’ GOD (should)be. the word ‘experience’ is used through out the (christian) realm. it is an extremely dangerous area to embrace. because our minds often use ‘experience’ to make us ‘feel’ that we haven gotten a ‘revelation’ from GOD. experience, feelings’ etc. are not learning of JESUS. and i respect that ‘experience ‘ is (your) understanding of THE GOD&SAVIOR OF THE BIBLE. but if any person that thinks that their mind (experience) is what matters, then they need to compare what ‘they’ experience/believe to the THE WORD OF GOD, THE BIBLE. the bible is GOD’S WORD to us. so it’s not what (any) person believes, it’s if one embraces the TRUTH. and JESUS (IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE). JN 14:6. if your ‘opinion’ about GOD doesn’t align with Scripture, then you are deceiving yourself.

  8. Toviyah

    Thanks for sharing the facts of your circumstance. I was particularly captivated by the phrase “learn OF HIM”. It brings to mind something that I’ve discussed many times. My thoughts are as follows: If one of your best friends told me a lot about you, I could then say that through the friend I was able to “learn OF YOU”. But if I were to personally meet you and spend time with you, that’s when I can truly say the “I KNOW YOU!”. In a similar way, it’s the distinction between learning OF HIM (God) and actually getting to KNOW HIM in my life. Both learning and experience are important. But I believe that ultimately it’s the experience of God in our lives that matters the most. This is only my opinion.


  9. h l munsey

    i think mr lee’s article is very good, if i understood it properly. i am black and i have been going to dutch reformed church for the past 6 years. i was going to join, but i refused to attend 2 services, and well, i just don’t agree with a lot of the denominational rules, can’t work at certain places, can’t work a union job, etc. but anyway, even as the members there are fine, they all have that republican, conservative mentality. they definitely don’t want to talk about race. and you can’t question the rules vs. scripture. so why am i there? because the truth is preached and taught. it’s not the humanism, self esteem, name it claim it garbage. and i am also a pert of the ‘grace to you’ family. macarthur has been instrumental in my learning the bible. but most of all the HOLY SPIRIT has been my teacher, my guide. the TRUE TRIUNE GOD has led me to ‘learn OF HIM’. whether i liked it or not, i wanted to know the (truth). no matter where the LORD leads me in HIS WORD, i have to love it and i do. the fact that the reformed whites don’t want to put the truth of race ten and now into perspective, is no surprise. but the fact that blacks desire sooooo bad for the acceptance of white people is appalling. even to this day. and it’s also (idolatry). it makes me sick. i don’t need any person white or otherwise to accept me. i live to please the SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. white people (as a whole) are always going to have the (superior) mentality, just as the u.s.a does in the world. both thoughts are not biblical. and may i add, this country that was built on lies, oppression, grand larceny, murder, etc. is under divine judgment. when such horrible atrocities are labeled as (God fearing), and GOD says we can do this with HIS blessings is a total lie. if you get a chance, read the book ‘one nation under God.

Leave A Comment