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The Spirit Leads Us into Truth: An Interview with Eugene Heideman

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Over the past fifty years, Eugene Heideman has been a leading theological voice in the Reformed Church in America and the broader Reformed community. Raised in Wisconsin, a graduate of Central College and Western Theological Seminary, he received his Ph.D. from the National University of Utrecht studying with A. A. van Ruler. In a uniquely varied career, Heideman served as pastor in Canada, missionary in India, chaplain and professor at Central College, professor at Western Theological Seminary, and denominational staff member of the Reformed Church in America. He authored a contemporary confession of faith, Our Song of Hope, which was adopted by the RCA in 1978. He and his wife, Mary, have four children. They reside in Holland, Michigan.

SMVW: Writing on the four hundredth anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1963, you critiqued its teachings about the Holy Spirit and the Church as being “introverted.” Its account of the Holy Spirit, you said, focuses too much on the inward and the individual, providing comfort and blessings, overlooking the Spirit’s role of sending and empowering, as well as the Spirit’s work in the wider world. Gene Likewise in the catechism, the church is more of a society for the elect, with little emphasis on the role of the church in the world or concern for those outside the church. Where did you develop these thoughts? Was your experience in foreign missions, outside the cocoon of Western Christendom of the 1950s and ’60s, an important factor in noting this “introversion”?

EH: The mission experience really had no impact. What did have an impact were my studies in the Netherlands exploring, among other things, the role of the church in public life. We in the Reformed Church in America did not understand the change in context of the European confessions when they came to America. We did not understand that the Heidelberg Catechism is an “Erastian” document, assuming that the monarch has ultimate control over the church. The king ruled, the king called together the writers of the catechism, the king promoted it. It was the teaching of “the realm.” When we took the Heidelberg Catechism to the United States, the change of context was not immediately noticeable; but the catechism originally functioned in a realm where it was presumed that the nation was Christian.

What I’m really objecting to is the “privatization” of the catechism. If I were writing today, I might use that word “privatized,” rather than “introverted.” Even the first-person pronouns in the catechism–me, my, I–that are often said to make it so beloved and personal, what we don’t realize is that the “I” is still “I, as a subject of the Palatinate,” not as a free standing individual. I’m not against the personal, only when it becomes exclusive–“how do I get salvation”–and the whole covenantal, communal side is ignored.

To understand the confessions, you really have to understand the relationship between church and state at that time. The Canons of Dordt, also an Erastian document, had the rule in its church order that only ecclesiastical matters may be discussed in ecclesiastical assemblies.   The concern must be for the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is the whole realm of life for the glory of God.  That was used to keep the church from speaking on some of the issues of the day, another example of introversion or privatization. Up to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the church could speak on “morals”–gambling, the anti-saloon league–but at a certain point it was for the state to deal with social issues, not the church. Foreign missions are not mentioned in the historical confessions. The major reason is because that would have been the duty of the political authorities. Foreign mission was a political act, really a form of colonialism. So when we take these confessions into different contexts, we’re not saying the same thing as they said in sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

SMVW: Much has changed since 1963. Today we’ve seen denominations and congregations writing “mission statements” and “vision statements” full of very outward, energetic rhetoric, the rise of the “missional church,” and the amazing growth and influence of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. Are these manifestations of the extroverted church you were hoping for in 1963?

EH: The concern must be for the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is the whole realm of life for the glory of God. The inward and outward are not to be opposed to each other. Both are needed. I’m not one who says that the church is formed “from the outside in,” that it is solely by our activity in the world that the church is defined. I’m not overly familiar with all the specifics of your examples, but the feeling I have is that really many of those kinds of things are still out of a privatized perspective. They don’t touch on a lot of things, only on “my heart.” I have nothing against that, only when it becomes exclusive.

SMVW: In 1978 the Reformed Church in America adopted Our Song of Hope as a contemporary statement of faith. You were the primary author of Our Song of Hope. Can you tell us a little bit about what motivated it and what went into that process?

EH: I was asked to do it. In the 1950s, there had been some talk of writing a new confession, thinking that our current confessions were not functioning well, and I was not in favor of it. I had written that before writing new confessions, we should understand what we have in the present confessions.

In the late ’60s, the Theological Commission of the Reformed Church had been asked to do it, but nine people working together on that kind of broad issue proved to be too much. They recommended that a new committee be set up just for that purpose. I agreed to do a draft and then we’d work outward from there. It started in summer of 1971 or ’72. When the school year was over at Central College, I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out 24 verses, about four verses a morning. Then I tried it out with faculty. We got together and read it together and let people react. From that I came up with a new draft. There were seven or eight drafts altogether. I met with the seminaries, pastors, different assemblies. Around four thousand people were involved in the process.

General Synod’s recommendation had four “Cs”–to be comprehensive, concise, clear, and contemporary. We didn’t want it to be for a museum, but for a billboard. It was a public document. In the earlier drafts, for example, there was a phrase, something about Jesus “became a homo sapiens.” I thought that was very contemporary, but I found out very few people knew the term. We got objections. “We’re against homos!” We had to take it out. We had more contemporary language in earlier drafts. One of the things I learned is that we have, not one language, but many languages, even if we’re all speaking English.

As the drafts went along we used more and more biblical language. Biblical language is the only common language. We might have different understandings of that language, but at least it recalls us to our source. Our Song of Hope was addressed to a specific time, so in that way it may seem dated today. But we tried very hard to write it so it could be said anywhere, in any culture, and thus would be truly ecumenical and catholic.

SMVW: What were some of the specific emphases and themes you were trying to include in Our Song of Hope?

EH: You have to remember that in 1972-74, we were just coming out of the civil rights movement. There were the developing male-female gender issues, birth control, Roe v. Wade occurred while we were writing, euthanasia; the issue of the inspiration of Scripture–Harold Lindsell’s book Battle for the Bible was very controversial at that time; of course, war and peace and Vietnam; the earlier stages of the Pentecostal movement. Teaching at Central College when I wrote it, I was very much aware of questions of knowledge and truth, one truth or many truths, increasing knowledge, the frontiers of research. Take for example stanza 14:

The Spirit leads us into Truth–the Truth of Christ’s salvation, into increasing knowledge of all existence. He rejoices in human awareness of God’s creation and gives freedom to those on the frontiers of research. We are overwhelmed by the growth in our knowledge. While our truths come in broken fragments, we expect the Spirit to unite these in Christ.

This statement was included to address those sorts of concerns. It wasn’t that I chose those issues. It was the time. I never took the position that Our Song of Hope was to be on equal footing with the Standards.   Unlike the older confessions, Our Song of Hope works eschatologically, from the end toward the beginning.  It was quite adequate for me that it be used to supplement the Standards. We put together a large index for it, with all the places that made a connection or reference to the Standards. The old confessions are all through it. The key difference between Our Song of Hope and the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is that the older confessions work from a perspective of beginning to the end. Those who work with covenantal or federal theology talk of the “decrees of God” from before creation. Our Song of Hope, on the other hand, works eschatologically, from the end toward the beginning.

SMVW: How was Our Song of Hope received and used by the church?

EH: It was decided that its reception by the church was just as important as its contents. In 1974 at General Synod, we used it for morning worship. We read four or five verses every morning, and we sang the refrain. I had seen the power of song in India where churches sang the Nicene Creed. All sorts of people standing and singing the creed from memory left an impression on me, so singing was incorporated. It went over very well at Synod. There were people who had come to Synod utterly opposed to it who told me at Synod they liked it–even if they changed back when they went home!

The immediate reception of the Synod may have been its greatest impact. We had just been through a time of great controversy and division in the RCA. We didn’t really know why we were staying together as a denomination. Our Song of Hope reminded us that there were things we could say together. Even on controversial issues, there is a lot we can say together.

After four years of trial use, it was adopted in 1978 without protest. It has never been widely used in RCA congregations, but where it has been used it has had a positive reception. Of course, one can ask how far the church is bound by any standards at all anymore.

SMVW: One notices how often “the nations” are mentioned in Our Song of Hope, or the inclusion of phrases and ideas such as “technology and business,” “art and education,” “international self-control,” “opposing discrimination of race or sex.” Are these examples of the extroverted theology you called for?

EH: The language of Our Song of Hope is “open.” It points to the future, working from the center out, but doesn’t try to define boundaries. It admits that there is a lot we don’t know yet. We will encounter some truths on the fringes; God is not without witness even at the edges of our knowledge. Our Song of Hope doesn’t work much on the theme of “common grace.” Instead it works from the center of Christ, but the Holy Spirit is always moving ahead of us.

For example, in the Tamil language there is a Hindu concept of “anbu” which has a meaning very similar to the Christian idea of “agape.” Perhaps “agape” is not as exclusive to Christianity as people like Anders Nygren have claimed.   We don’t know the limits of the Spirit. The Spirit is always moving ahead of Christ, doing the preparative work of the Gospel.  But I’ve also heard it said that possibly the origin of “anbu” in Hinduism stems from contact with Syrian Christians or Nestorians somewhere in the seventh to twelfth centuries. The religions of the world are not water-tight compartments. Hinduism wasn’t really defined as a religion until the ninteenth century by German and English scholars who were classifying world religions. Originally it was a collection of practices and beliefs of the people centered in the Indus valley.

But the point is that we can’t trace out the working of Holy Spirit. We don’t know the limits of the Spirit. The Spirit is always moving ahead of Christ, doing the preparative work of the Gospel. The Spirit goes into the world. The Spirit is free and doesn’t need to wait for the church or the state.

SMVW: How would you respond to a critique that Our Song of Hope reflects the activist, almost secular, Christianity of that era that looked outside the church walls for the real work and action of the Spirit? Can the church become overly-extroverted at the expense of Word and Sacrament? More broadly, how does one distinguish the work of the Holy Spirit from the Zeitgeist?

EH: The Spirit is always the Holy Spirit of Christ, not a generalized spirituality. Of course the ultimate word is in Christ. The Spirit always moves according the paradigm of Jesus. The Spirit is not loosed from Christ. So although I may have called for an extroverted faith, the “real action” is always around Word and Sacrament. You can’t have action in the world without Word and Sacrament. Some people questioned the language in Our Song of Hope that says, “Christ places the Lord’s table in this world.” Isn’t the table set in the church? they wondered. But I’m saying that this community–for example, Holland, Michigan, and many others of course–is a different place because the Lord’s table is set here. The sacraments aren’t locked away in the church. In a good Reformed church there are clear windows so the world can look in and see the Lord’s table, and then people can ask themselves if they are living according to that table.

When I was in Madras, I led a daily Eucharist service at 7 AM. At 7:30 I would go home to eat my breakfast. Then at eight o’clock when I walked into the world, often there would be a beggar on my front step. The way I engaged and treated that beggar in the world had a lot to do with tables I had already been at that morning.

SMVW: At the National University in Utrecht, you studied with Reformed theologian A. A. van Ruler. Can you give a thumbnail sketch introduction to van Ruler, both the person and his theology?

EH: He is very complex, more complex than Barth, and while I studied with him and was influenced by him, I’ve never really expounded on him. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions was arguing that, contra Barth, you can’t apply Christological categories to pneumatology. The Chalcedonian categories of fully divine, fully human, yet without confusion or mixture, don’t work for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works without perfection or completeness, interacting with and using human, sinful language.

For example, consider all the “case law” in the Old Testament. Scripture says you’ve got to respect all people as created in the image of God, but then you’ve got the Israelites going off to war. They capture a slave girl and bring her home with them. What do you do with that? Do you just say you may not go to war anymore? Or instead do you say “You’ve got to give her thirty days to trim her hair and pare her nails and mourn her parents. Then if you want to take her for your concubine, okay. But if you don’t want her, you can’t put her up for sale” (Deut. 21:10-14)?

That’s pneumatological language, not the pure absolutes of Christological language. It is where we live day by day. We are living according to the Spirit, always struggling to live the pure Gospel in a sinful world. The working of the Spirit is always messy and imperfect. This is why I’ve always resisted incarnational language for the church or Christian life, because the working of the Holy Spirit is always all mixed up and messy, fully in the world.

Van Ruler was a pastor for seventeen years before he taught, so the life of the church was always very important for him. He was best known in the Netherlands as a radio preacher. Some of these morning meditations are translated into English. He got out of the Netherlands only once in his life–he went to Germany!

He had a very strong sense of the church’s mission, yet at the same time a very strong sense of “office”–the ordained ministry. You have an “over-againstness” between the ordained ministry and the people in the pew. The people need to understand that the Gospel does not up rise up from our own hearts, but comes from Christ and the scripture. It comes to us from outside us, over against us, just as to be ordained is to be over-against, set apart.

Van Ruler had some memorable sayings about the church. The church is like a drunken man wobbling down an alley. Watching him, you are sure that he will stumble and fall down. He staggers from wall to wall, but somehow he makes it down that alley and never falls. Or, the church is like a cigar-smoking elder. The elder has been smoking a cigar before the service, and then with that very same hand, he shakes the hand of his minister right before he preaches. That elder is concerned about the preaching of the Gospel, yet also fully a man of the world concerned about cigars. You’ve got to understand that at that time in the Netherlands, the liberals in the church smoked cigarettes, while the orthodox “ethical wing” of the church smoked little cigars. The confessional sorts, the Barthians, smoked pipes. Cigars were smoked by the right wing! Fully in the world and fully in the church!

Our Song of Hopeis available for viewing online.

Steven Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and adjunct professor of religion at Central College.