Arnold A. van Ruler: Calvinist Trinitarianism and Theocentric Politics. Trans. John Bolt. (Toronto Studies in Theology 38.) Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1989. xliv, 228. $59.95.
This volume is comprised of eight key essays dating from 1947 by the Dutch theologian Arnold A. van Ruler, essays that until now have not been accessible to the English-speaking audience. Together with the translator’s very helpful introductory survey of the background and context of van Ruler’s theocentric vision, these essays provide the first comprehensive English introduction to van Ruler’s theology.
Although he started out as a Barthian, van Ruler soon concluded that Barth’s view of the world was too Christomonistic. The important first essay, “The Necessity of a Trinitarian Theology,” encapsulates the central themes of van Ruler’s perspective.
Jesus Christ is not all that there is and the preaching of the gospel is not all that there is. We humans and worldly reality also exist; culture and historical processes exist as well. And each of these has its own independence and its own significance. But, in the Christian faith, this cannot be understood christologically but only in a trinitarian way. [P. 14]
Going beyond the “gnostic solution of soteriologizing the entire world, and its consequence, namely, the irreconcilable conflict between the church and the world” (p. 19), van Ruler contends that the trinitarian and plural character of the Reformed churches best equips them for the ecumenical task mandated by Christ, Scripture, and tradition to call forth the kingdom. Emphasizing particularly the “impoverished” pneumatological area of theology, van Ruler maintains, “it is these [Reformed] churches whose polity is built on the conviction that dialogue is the means by which the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth” (p. 16), perhaps even to the resolution of the conflict between Rome and the Reformation. Van Ruler does well to remind us that “the church of the Reformation is the reformed catholic church…. To be Reformed means to be, or at least to strive to be, truly and fully catholic” (p. 6).
In the essays “Structural Differences Between the Christological and Pneumatological Perspectives” and “Grammar of Pneumatology” van Ruler explores key distinctions to be made in regard to the person and work of the Christ and the Spirit, respectively. The mystical union with Christ is not the ultimate and real goal of the Christian religion, but rather the indispensable means utilized by the Spirit for obtaining the true goal: “the goal is the kingdom of God and experiencing the world as the kingdom” (p. 53). “The ultimate goal of all things thus does not lie in participating in the immanent-trinitarian life of God, but in the realization of genuine creaturely existence and being before the face of God in accordance with his will” (pp. 71-72). Hence, van Ruler contends in contradiction to standard Reformed presentations, Rome has not taught too much synergism, but too little, for it has not given adequate consideration to the work of the Holy Spirit in humanity, whereby “the entire business of God is placed in our hands and becomes our business, in our consciousness, our decision, our act, our prayer, and in our accountability in the last judgment” (p. 73). The meaning of the world for God thus goes beyond soteriology to protology and eschatology. Sanctification—life lived before God’s face, horizontally, in time—not forgiveness, is, according to van Ruler, the biblical-reformational view of the meaning of the world. This perspective issues in an alteration in emphasis regarding the cross of Christ. “This atoning sacrifice finds its meaning not in sacrifice as such, and not even in atonement as such (i.e., the removal of guilt between God and humanity), but in God’s justice. We are thus directed to its meaning for human life” (p. 110). The essay “Christ Taking Form in the World” culminates with a discussion of the theocracy van Ruler envisions. “Theocracy is the ordering and configuration (Gestaltung) of the life of the state from the perspective of Christ, the gospel, and the Word of God” (p. 121). This does not mean that one devises a theory of the state or even a program for political action from the Bible; rather, it summons government in its creation of laws, ruling, and administration of justice to understand itself from within the biblical conception of life and community. Far from the absolutism seemingly inherent in the theonomy movement, theocracy is the only means whereby the ideal of toleration can be maintained, as van Ruler points out in the essay “Theocracy and Toleration.”
With his emphases on the Trinity and the kingdom, eschatology and this-worldliness, dialogue and the impossibility of absolute certainty or unity, it is easy to see how someone like the liberationist theoretician Järgen Moltmann could have found so much capital in van Ruler on which to build (see M. Douglas Meeks, Origins of the Theology of Hope [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974] 24-25, 97–99). The resemblances in van Ruler to secular theology are, however, “superficial,” as Bolt makes clear in his introduction (pp. xi-xiv). In point of fact, van Ruler saw in Karl Barth’s dismissal of the significance of history, his critique of all Christianization, and his rejection of infant baptism a devaluation of the world to a mere theater on which the drama of the covenant of grace is performed. It was Barth, van Ruler declared, who was to blame for the growth of secular and revolutionary theology. “By failing clearly to distinguish salvation and creation, church and world, by merging salvific and ontic reality into one christocentric perspective, Barth paved the way for the particularity of grace disappearing into the universality of the world process” (p. xxxvii).
For van Ruler, Bonhoeffer’s religionlessness is the exact opposite of maturity, for maturity requires judgment, which requires metaphysics, ontology, and, foundationally, religion.
Through regeneration and conversion, in the purification of one’s heart and the sanctification of one’s life, one discovers not only Christ and God, but above all, also oneself and the world. Apart from Christ and the Spirit, apart from God, culture and the state are not genuine possibilities…. Even such generally human questions as those of epistemology, questions about how we can know the world, ourselves and thus truth, cannot be resolved apart from the presuppositions of the Christian faith. [P. 86]
“Reason is only genuinely reason when it not only becomes aware of the Word of God, but when it knows with (conscientia) God about itself, about rational humanity, and about all things” (p. 139).
Founded in historic Calvinism and its dual emphasis on predestination and the work of the Spirit, van Ruler’s kingdom vision nonetheless acknowledges more fully the mutuality missing in much of Reformed theology, a lack which has come powerfully to the fore in recent social reconstructions of God.
All reality is, of course, the work of God, and as such it is placed in our hands and becomes human work…. As human beings are made responsible for God’s work, that is to say, we are called to such a responsibility (it is not simply given in our existence). God desires to discuss everything with us, everything that he has done with the world—which belongs to God! [P. 145]
Hence, for van Ruler, Immanuel (“God with us”) and Christianization are merely the means toward the ultimate goal of the realization of humanity as human beings before God. We are Christians to be humans, not humans to be Christians. This vantage point permits a much greater appreciation of the life to be lived from the purpose of creation to its eschatological consummation and is a perspective from which Reformed theology can make significant gains in its ecumenical and missionary efforts.