The Rapids of Yesteryear and the Rapids of Today

By Prof. T van Der Walt

In history a climax does not occur of its own volition. A climax also cannot always be predicted.  Yet there are certain characteristics common to the high points of history. Mostly (if not always) these are accompanied by tremendous pressure, with high tension, sometimes even with an oppressive sense of anxiety. They are the crises which could have turned into yawning abysses were it not for the benediction of the Lord and for prophetic vision, practical clarity, sweat and struggle brought into play by men.

And then these periods also have in common that there are times when things seemed to be carried along in boiling rapids.  When the initial obstruction has been washed away, there is a great welling  forth and a stream that cannot be dammed. If then one does not have strong nerves, and when one’s spiritual arteries are beginning to deteriorate, then it is obvious that one will begin to complain that things are rushing along too fast and that we shall have to start applying the brakes. But then there are those who welcome the rapids, who do not attempt to dam up the rapids but who have the audacity and the courage to channel the water. They then become the pioneers of the new golden era.

Each climax in history inevitably also has its detritus, its debris. The spiritual steel, the cultural gold, the diamonds of faith, however, remain a precious heritage for prosperity.  And these are commemorated with great gratitude and joy.

In this way we are today commemorating one of these priceless climaxes of history, the Reformation.  And we do this in a world which shows remarkable similarities with the world which gave birth to the Reformation. We too live in a world characterized by enormous tension, and everything points to this world becoming even more stress-ridden.  There are those among us who have begun to complain that things are going too fast. Yet today, to use an image, God provides not only the surf but also the surf-riders – those descendants of the Reformers who know and understand that without the swell of the sea they cannot ultimately be washed out on a firm shore. They therefore thank God for all the rapids and they do not for a moment hesitate in the face of challenges that are at times enormous.


Let us for a moment pause at this concept. It has become a commonplace to state that we live in a time of enormous temporal rapids. What used, in earlier times, to require years, decades or even centuries to come to fruition now happens in sudden spurts, in days, months, instants. The world has shrunk and has started moving at a dizzying pace. And we, at the southernmost tip of Africa, have not escaped the whirlpool.

It is therefore not strange that people should see a threat in the boiling waters of our time, that they should feel intensely anxious and intimidated.  Rapids, in fact, can be extremely dangerous.

In a time of temporal rapids things can of course go wrong with a disastrous suddenness – but on the other they can also go right with equal speed. In shooting the rapids of history there is something of challenge and adventure, something even of liberation.  It is to some extent like moving a house. One is forced of a sudden to get rid of a great deal of accumulated rubbish. Nobody could, in shooting rapids of any kind, take along excess baggage. One is forced to distinguish clearly: What is truly important and what is not? What is good an necessary and useful – and what is truly essential?

In this way a patch of rough water will force one to take a closer look, to judge critically one’s attitudes to life and to revaluate one’s view of life.  This strips away the veneer and forces one to look once again at the foundations, the basic principles, those things which anchor one.

This was the situation at the time of the Reformation as well. Don’t for a moment think that the Middle Ages were so uniformly dark as we like to portray them. The Middle Ages constituted a very important bridge between two climaxes of history, viz. the Classical era and the Renaissance.  In this period, the Middle Ages, a precious hoard of spiritual and intellectual goods came to be gathered which otherwise would have been lost to us.  But the period also began to be incoherent, disorderly and ultimately suffocating.

The Reformation (and in other respects the Renaissance) had to recreate order from this chaos, had to separate, critically, the wheat from the chaff and had to open up the channels to the primary source again – back to the Bible, and the God of the Bible.

We honour the Reformation by living in the Reformational way. And where we find ourselves in the midst of rapids and whirlpools, I feel that we are better able to visualize for ourselves the Reformation that we would have been in periods of greater welfare, prosperity and carefree progress.

May I mention in particular three characteristics of the Reformation which are very relevant in the word in which we live? And may I at the same time ask of you to judge your own actions and deeds in the light of that which confronts all of us, to tackle the challenges so that the commemoration of the Reformation in which we are currently engaged will not remain a mere sop to our consciences.

Our children

But let us first direct a word at the children, because on this occasion too we should not forget them. I know that they do not always understand what grown-ups say to each other.

For the sake of our children – and I am not sure that this is not going to mean something for the grown-ups as well, I am going to recapitulate this under three headings: Strength, Direction and Control. They will constitute the catchwords for our discussion.

Just to make more certain that this is understood fully, I am going to use another image, that of a motorcar.

If one steps on the accelerator, there should be power. The car should be able to start moving, and be able to move fast if need be.

But then – the car should not just move in any direction. The first catchword, of strength or power, should also be accompanied by the second, direction. One should not only have a foot on the accelerator, but should also have a hand on the steering wheel. The power thus has to be directed in a certain way. The second catchword after strength or power therefore is direction.

With this we have already arrived at the third catchword, that of control. If the road is straight, one can drive quite fast. If, however, there is a sharp curve in the road, one has to brake to bring down the speed so that the car is under control. This is what control really means – that one can control the car.  It does not help if you have a great deal of horsepower under the bonnet of the car and the brakes do not work at all.

These then are out catchwords: Strength, Direction and Control.

Our three catchwords and the Reformation

Let us now apply these catchwords to the Reformation: The Reformation in actual fact had been a time of strength, direction and control.

How? What do we mean by this?

In the first place the Reformation was a period of strength. It was a time when tremendous events took place which we still remember so long after the events themselves happened – so long that we still commemorate the Reformation more than four centuries ago with gratitude and joy.

We do at times feel a little shortage of energy, often we feel weak, so helpless. We baulk at the slightest effort. The Reformers were not afraid to tackle anything – even great things – and to complete them against all odds. The Reformation was a period of strength, it was dynamic period, it had energy to inculcate jealousy in anyone.

This then is the first catchword: strength.

In the second place there is the catchword direction. The Reformation was not a wild, undirected, fluttering manifestation of power, not a whirlwind kicking up dust which would force one, after it was over, to as the question: Now what was all that about? The Reformation had a clear direction, and followed it consistently. There was a pattern of unity in the actions of the Reformers. The Reformation had direction.

In the third place there is the matter of control. Do not confuse being reformed and being brash and obtrusive. It is not being reformed to rush on and on until one feels a sense of vertigo. Modesty, temperance, control, discipline, soberness, clearheadedness – however you would like to describe it – all these (in the face of all the rush and welter) became innate characteristics of the Reformation which had its roots deep in Scripture.

Three trends

We often think of the Reformation as the time when the Reformation and Rome confronted each other acrimoniously. This is really wrong or at least incomplete. What made it so difficult for our forebears was that there were three trends then.  Apart from the Protestant pioneers and the Roma traditionalists there was also a third group from which most of the sects of our day have originated: we usually refer to them as Dopers (Baptists).

This group was the cause of a great deal of embarrassment for our ancestors and did a great deal of damage to the whole cause of the Reformation.

Try for a moment to envisage yourself living in the time of the Reformation. You are a conservative, clear-headed Roman-Catholic, with both feet squarely on the earth.  And then you start noticing the excesses, the extremes to which these fanatics go, and you say to yourself: This is not possible, God cannot have willed that his church should indulge in unilateral, obviously simplistic practises. It is then so strange that so many of the clear-headed and practical Roman-Catholics turned their backs on the Reformation because they felt that these fanatics and bigots had to be the same as the Protestants – and they did not for one moment wish to be associated with such creatures.

For the Reformers themselves this was a very difficult situation. The not only had to defend themselves in one direction – very often they had to face the fire from both sides. We know today how difficult it is to have to defend on two fronts at once.  The Reformers not only had to defend themselves against the Roman-Catholics – at times the venom spilt by the fanatics was every bit as strong as that of the Catholics.  But the Reformers steadfastly kept up the struggle, because the Reformation was also a time for control, a time for self-control, for discipline, for modesty, for soberness, for temperance and for clarity of vision.

The Reformation therefore meant not only strength (the firs catchword), but also direction (the second catchword) and finally also, and especially control: the Reformers knew that a time would come when one would have to say that things could go no further.  In life – and in the sight of God – there is concern not only for vision and impetus, for a dynamic progression, for enthusiasm and a surging forward, but also for self-control, temperance and balance.

Three crucial facts about the Reformation

Let us know look at what underlies these three catchwords of the Reformation. We concentrate on three crucial facts from the time of the Reformation which have special significance even for us today. And the we are confronted once again by the appeal to our consciences: Do we today live according to these tenets heart and soul? Do only our words echo emptily or do our deeds speak clearly?  What about us can convince the outsider unequivocally of the fact that we are children of the Reformation: is it our doctrine only or our living triumphantly?

We always have to keep reforming

In the first place there is the key word, the main underlying force of the Reformation: Semper Reformanda – we always have to keep reforming, it is a continuing process.

Sometimes we tend to make the truth more complicated than it is. Perhaps we are frightened of something because it is so simple, and we don’t speak of it in simple terms. Could I state it in very simple terms? The Reformation was a time of reforming, a continuing state of awareness of change. The Reformation stopped as an active process when reformation does not take place any more as a continuing process. And this happened  in spite of the credo of the Reformation that the process had to be sustained always – semper reformanda.

Whether we today can call ourselves children of the Reformation is determined largely by the extent to which we live according to this code of life.

Having “arrived” runs counter to being reformed.  One who is truly reformed takes nothing for granted.  He is not satisfied with the status quo just like that. It is impossible for him to stand and mark time. He knows that he is on a journey, on the way to his eternal destiny.  He lives in a world that is incomplete.  The grace of God has already partially shown itself, but Satan is still roaming the earth. The world by right belongs to the Lord, to Him alone, but in actual fact it is also occupied territory, filled with terrorists and insurgents.

A Christian is carried along by the grace of God, but at the same time he has to be on the lookout sharply for hidden landmines. He lives in love as a child of the Father, but also has to fight with great determination as a soldier of Christ.

We read in 1 Timothy 4:10 of Demas who fell in love with the contemporary world. Do not fall into the temptation of romanticising this story. It can mean that Demas fell in love with a girl, and that this was the end of his participation in the uncertain life of the apostle Paul. It can also mean that Demas committed one or the other great sin and that in that way he showed that he was not suitable any more for the high purpose of being an ambassador of Christ.  It might also, however, simply means that Demas became contented with this world as it was, that he became caught in the status quo, in the present patterns, and that he wanted to return to the old ways.  He called himself “conservative”, but the Word of God disposes of him as “a lover of the contemporary world”.

The danger, and the sin of Demas, are perhaps more real and frightening to the Afrikaner today than ever before.  The temptation, in the midst of the rapids of our time, to grasp the straws and the loose debris of a past time is very strong.  It is so easy to caricaturize all changes, to turn them into a kind of cartoon, to jeer that is it only change for the sake of change – and then to fall back onto one’s laurels and to wash one’s hands in great and overweening innocence.

True conservatism and spiritual arteriosclerosis, spiritual laziness and spiritual agoraphobia have nothing to do with each other.

Are we descendants of the Reformation, as children of the Father, members of the body of Christ, bride of the Lamb, temple of the Holy Spirit – are we critical enough of the world in which we live? Is the danger of self-sufficiency not overpowering in us, even though we might camouflage it ever so strongly?  Why is the opposition to criticism among some of our people – and then not always the first or the best – so strong?

Of course it is true that the one-sided stream of criticism customarily poured out over our heads makes many of us shy away from criticism. The over-sensitivity of some of us can be understood all too readily.  If, however, one does not wish to listen to criticism – or even refuses to criticize – one is on the way to the abyss.  Then you have excluded yourself from any possibility of redemption.  The you have denied your Calvinist heritage, because you have relinquished the basic tenet of the Reformation, of semper reformanda. If then you insist on calling yourself a child of the Reformation, it becomes empty word, cold formalism.  But could I add this one sting: The critic himself is subject to criticism. The test for a true Protestant is not only the extent to which we hand out criticism, but also the extent to which – and the manner in which – we accept criticism, adapt it, respect it. It really does not mean much if one believes in freedom of speech when one is speaking, but then has a vicious intolerance when one is addressed in turn!

Potchefstroom is well-known for its critical stance, and this is good. In this too our community – and that includes the university community – has to reveal its reformational character of semper reformanda. We have to be critical of the world, and critical of ourselves.  We have to test ourselves against the Bible constantly, and determine whether we are still on the right track.  And we have to face it if others test us in brotherly concern.  Intolerance has no place among us, especially not elevating oneself to a point beyond criticism.  The test for a true Protestant is not only the extent to which we criticize, but also the extent to which we can take criticism.


This is the sevcong characteristic of the Reformation. Life is often so complicated that one cannot see the wood from the trees.  Often we abuse this complexity. We hide behind it so that we need not come to decisions. We warn against over-simplification; but then we often make the mistake ourselves to make an issue over-complicated,  just as a technique of evasion, a reason to remain sitting on the fence.

There are certain basic truths in life.  The Reformers had the courage to sat: When it comes to the push, then these basic issues are at stake: Only the Word of God, only faith, only mercy, only the honour of God. We can call these the four ground motifs of the Reformation: Sola Sacra Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria. 

God revealed Himself not only in his Word, but also in nature.  And yet, say the Reformers, if one wishes to see nature in the correct light, and if one wishes to appreciate nature as it deserves, then one needs the light of the Bible. We also learn from history; the voice of conscience speaks to us; public opinion (what other people think) is not without impact.  But there is only the one guideline that is infallible: the Bible. Tradition is precious, because tradition is that which our forebears have found to be tried and tested, and which has proved to be worthy of being passed on to later generations.  Our ancestors, however, were also fallible human beings, and for that reason tradition can often be smothering, and can often mislead one. Tradition too then has to be tested against the Bible.  God has not piled us up like loose particles of sand, but created us into a fixed structure, organically into communities.

And still, the voices of the Lord and the Word always have to resound above the voice of the nation. And if it should come to a clash, there is, for the Protestant no choice or doubt. He knows who he has to listen to. We always have to obey God before we obey people. Most fundamentally our only norm resides in the Word which says: Thus God says. And for that reason: Sola Sacra Scriptura – Only on the grounds of the Holy Scripture.

We are linked to other people by many bonds: the bond of friendship, the bond of comradeship, the bond of blood, or the bonds of communal interests or responsibilities. Above all these, however, towers the bond of faith. And if your bonds with other people clash with the bond of faith, then it is always the bond of faith which has toe weigh almost heavily – the Reformers called this the Sola fide.

There is a responsibility that everyone has to bear. Nobody can evade that. And yet, things are going well for us: not because we are good but because the goodness of the Lord is limitless. Nothing that we have has not been given to us. Everything that is worthwhile we gain on our knees. At the core all of life is pure grace. Whoever prays, however, also has to work – as we see in the old Christian proverb ora et labora: to confess that all is grace is no free entrance to be weak-kneed attitude of help-me-please. And then again, with the sweat glistening on our foreheads and our hands blistered with labour, we still know that all is purest mercy and grace: Sola gratia!

There are many things for which we live and struggle and sweat. Children wish to honour their parents’ names. Students base their honour on doing well in communities and at university or in their residences. But once again: no purpose is so elevated, no other aim so worthwhile, as the honour of the Lord. And for that reason: “Well whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for God’s glory” (1 Corinthians 10:31; see also Colossians 3:23).

Was the Reformation simplistic, one-sided because of all these characteristics? Did it in fact become a reduction of the reality?

On the contrary. By distinguishing between that which was essential and that which was not, by identifying that which was not truly important, the Reformation had strong anchors in the midst of the rapids of the sixteenth century, which enabled it not to be washed away.

This is also of great importance for the twentieth century: To be able, in the midst of the diversity or responsibilities, demands and issues to distinguish that which is truly and crucially important, not to be busy with the thousand and one petty details which plague us always. We have to determine our priorities. And then the stress should not be merely on a complexity of words, or a maelstrom of concepts: whoever has devined the core does not need heavy books.

Always near in the sight of God

The most fundamental secret of the Reformation, however, is situated in this: that everything should be in the field of vision of God, that God reigns supreme in all spheres, that there is no tiny area of which Christ cannot say that it is his.  For that reason the whole of life is religion, is divine service. For that reason we have the honour and the privilege to serve God in all spheres, with joy and submission – being at the same time grateful like a child.

This is not, however, a strict new law which comes to us harshly. Coram Deo (in the sight of God) is also a joyful gospel. We are never free of God. We can never flee from Him (Psalm 139). Even if we try to disentangle ourselves from Him. He still holds on to us. Even if we should forget Him, we are never relinquished. In this knowledge of being cherished by God, of being anchored in the eternal councils of the Almighty, to be cherished in the heart of the Lord, the Reformation found strength and courage and daring to oppose the streams of the time directly.  This anchor holds one steady within all the whirlwinds of change while one is securely anchored there where God decrees it.

Be children of the Reformation then by living in the way the Reformation demands. Always be willing to reform – also at the personal level (perhaps especially there!).  Distinguish between important and unimportant issues, and make the foundations of your life unequivocal. Go forth in his Strength, his Direction and his Spirit.

Commemorate the Reformation by living reformingly!


Our Reformational Tradition. A Rich Heritage and Lasting Vocation. 1984. Series F: Institute for Reformational Studies F3 Collections, Number 21.  Potchefstroom: Potchefstroom University for Higher Education.

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