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April 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 1 · pp. 180–82 

Book Review

Responsible Revolution

J. Verkuyl and H. Nordholt. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974. 101 pages.

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Mouw stresses that full-bodied evangelism must also pay attention to the political arena. Jesus “came to rescue the entire created order from the pervasive power of sin” (p. 13); Christ’s atoning work “offers liberation for people in their cultural endeavours, in their institutions and the making of public policy.” (pp. 14, 15)

One of the essential components of the political level is that evidenced by the social nature of the church. Here he traces the concept of community that characterizes the church; “political evangelism must be an outgrowth of our life together as the people of God. (It involves). . .building and sustaining Christian community.” (p 75) {181}

Mouw attempts to show why the Christian community can speak in the political realm by hasty exegesis of key passages (Rom. 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:9-17). It is here that his brief comments show him at his weakest. Paul, in Rom. 13, is not saying anything about preferring a good government to a bad government—or to no government at all (a claim Mouw makes, p. 55); Paul is simply saying that government (actually, authority) is ordered (ordained, set in place) by God. The key to develop here is the concept of “authority” or of “ordained” (cf. Berkhof’s Christ and the Powers), but Mouw ignores these dimensions (or Paul’s telling reminder of the need to be obedient “for conscience’ sake”—Rom. 13:6; Mouw’s formulation would appear to favour obedience because that is preferable to anarchy). The case cannot be argued on pragmatic grounds; the argument Mouw suggests for Rom. 13 (i.e., that we recognize our right to political action in a democratic government on the basis that God has ordered (ordained) it, p. 55 ) has too many enthymemes. Also, Mouw’s concept of legitimizing divorce on the ground of adultery (p. 54) does not adequately reflect the creation order Jesus referred to in Matthew (‘except’ clause or not).

Mouw’s brevity also trips him up when he fleetingly refers to Rauschenbush as one who “identified the kingdom of God with socialism” (p. 26); this is the type of generalization that does justice neither to Rauschenbush nor to Mouw (or to socialism, either).

One might comment on what he has not said. When he has a meditation on Col. 1 (p. 105), one is tempted to ask how he could neglect mentioning anywhere else the important section in Eph. 1 which has an identical theme. Also, a brief treatment of epistolary usage of “Lord” with reference to Jesus would have strengthened his case.

An interesting treatment is approached here by Mouw; hopefully it can be more adequately followed up with more explicit (and thoughtful) theological discussion.

When in recent months we have seen governments in Greece, Portugal, Thailand and Chile fall, we can well ask ourselves to what implications for change these events witness. What of the other countries in Latin America and Asia and Africa where social and political changes seem to be possible only through revolution? In Responsible Revolution, Verkuyl and Nordholt (both faculty members of the Free University of Amsterdam) present a sketch of a theology that underlies the demand for liberation, and a critique of the methodologies generally undertaken to achieve this end. Verkuyl points out that “sin works itself out in the collective behaviour of groups, classes, nations, and that unrighteousness takes form in institutions and social structures” (p. 40). He points out that the Christian needs to wait for the coming of God’s ultimate reign, as well as to work for hastening it (p. 68). Nordholt focuses on what revolutions have done, and presents a fairly consistent critique and rejection of violence as a means of effecting a revolution.

But the message of Responsible Revolution emerges as a fairly tame one: we must bring back parliamentary democracy to life (p. 68); alternatives to violence are technology, education, passive resistance, media usage and the coup d’etat (which “at least involves a minimum of bloodletting”, p. 100, 101). But why violence is not to be seen as an option for oppressed minorities is not developed theologically in terms of reconciliation, apart from passing reference to Martin Luther King (p. 57). Taken as a whole, the conclusions of the writers are not dissimilar from {182} what one might have picked up in an extrapolation of John Stuart Mill’s. For example, it seems strange that technology can be seen as part of the salvation process; on this point Nordholt might have made at least a passing reference to Ellul’s prophetic The Technological Society which challenges the easy assumption about seeing technology as redemptive.

Responsible Revolution may well state agenda items of our world conference; its contents don’t go very far in presenting position papers for that conference.

Both professors of history (at KSU and Indiana State U respectively), Linder and Pierard bring good historical considerations to bear on the relation of the Christian to political activity. They develop clear theories of the state, they cite instances where Christian participation has swung the balance, they indicate the impact of Christian political and economic reformers. There is a curious concept that a government’s function is to create freedom for people because Jesus also wanted to make men free, and here they cite John 8:32, 36 (p. 47). This is a typical instance of the “Protestant particle theory” of freedom that owes more to Hobbesian materialism than to Jesus’ concept of freedom in the John passage.

The onus is on the Christian to work within the present political system, Linder and Pierard hold, and there is no apparent attempt to evaluate whether the very form of that system may not be demonic. It may well be legitimate to work within the present system, but this legitimacy is assumed without any questioning at all by the writers.

Of interest, also, is their definition of Christian faith as the acceptance of (1) the Bible as the basis of religious authority, (2) the need for individual salvation through faith in Jesus and (3) the lordship of Christ in all of life (p. 21). It’s curious to note the time-honoured split—at least in their formulation between Jesus as ‘saviour’ and as ‘lord’, or to see the Bible (not Jesus) as the basis of “religious authority.” A rather unthought-through formulation, especially in a post-Barth, post-Bonhoeffer generation. (The copy editor might have avoided the use of “less” for “fewer”, p. 21).

Politics does not take a prophetic stance; it encourages us to use the present system, and to be more consciously efficiency experts as we use it.

Vern Ratzlaff,
MB Bible College

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