Theology honours the giants of the past

Posted on April 19, 2017

Ten people who made a significant contribution to the Faculty of Theology over the past century were honoured at a centenary conference held by the Faculty in April 2017.

A survey was conducted by Prof Johan Buitendag, Dean of the Faculty of Theology, to identify the giants of the past, sung and unsung. “We have to acknowledge our predecessors – inside and outside the Faculty, who have contributed to our nature and ethos today, as expressed in our Faculty’s vision and mission. Hebrews 13:7 says: ‘Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. Think about how their lives turned out, and imitate their faith’, said Prof Buitendag.

He added that one-hundred years is no short period. “Only four of the ten are still with us and I am delighted that they have availed themselves to attend the conference to receive their accolades.”

The recipients are Dr Andre Bartlett, Rev Louis Brandt, Prof Berend Gemser, Prof Albert Geyser, Prof Chris de Beer, Prof Johan Heyns, Prof Ben Marais, Prof Maake Masango, Prof Andries van Aarde, and Prof Adrianus van Selms.

Dr Andre Bartlett champions the theological investigation of LGBT rights in the Dutch Reformed Church. He is known for his brave public witness and has become a ‘gateway’ to the exploration of new ideas and possibilities.

Reverend Louis Brandt, not only had the view that a truly comprehensive university should reflect a multidimensional reality, but opposed the governmental onslaught on the Faculty in 1927, inter alia by depicting the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria as of multi-ecclesial nature.

Professor Berend Gemser was the pioneer of the academic study of Semitic languages in South Africa and the driving force behind the establishment of HTS Theology Studies. He advocated a theology free from fundamentalism and liberal modernism.

Professor Albert Geyser unpacked the political and spiritual consequences of biblical exegesis by emphasising the universal implications of the gospel message, and exposed separatism, racism and sexism. He was the doyen of Afrikaner theologians who actively resisted apartheid legislation and was subsequently dismissed as professor.

As Vice-Rector, Professor Chris de Beer was responsible for the amalgamation of the two sections of the Faculty of Theology in 2000. With his legal mind, managerial skills, unbiased approach and sensitivity to church matters and values, he facilitated the current agreement between church and university and reinforced a strong scholarly approach to theology.

Former President Mandela said about Professor Johan Heyns: ‘Heyns was my favourite kind of Afrikaner. Morally and physically brave, honest to the core, he had the courage late in his life to admit to the error of his ways.’

Professor Ben Marais opposed the Afrikaner churches’ support of apartheid and co-authored the ground-breaking publication, Delayed action: An ecumenical witness from the Afrikaner church (Vertraagde Aksie), which challenged the theological support of apartheid.

Professor Maake Masango’s journey with the Faculty of Theology began in 2000 when he was appointed the first permanent black academic in the Faculty. He is a truly ecumenical theologian, known for his concern with the upliftment of disadvantaged people. He has developed a unique pedagogy for African students.

Employing the methodology of engaged hermeneutics and focusing on the historical Jesus, Professor Andries van Aarde is concerned with the poor, marginalised and oppressed. Since 1985 he has been editor-in-chief of the renowned scholarly journal, HTS Theological Studies, which is rated one of the top journals of religion in the world.

Professor Adrianus van Selms was known for his academic excellence and uncompromising devotion to Christ, both of which assumed radical inclusivity. This became evident in his strong opposition to Article 3 of the Netherdutch Reformed Church.

The survey was done among the academic staff of the Faculty. People from both inside and outside the Faculty who have made the Faculty what it is today, could be nominated and measured against the yardstick of the current vision and mission.

After the survey process was complete, the results were announced at a special awards evening, held in the Aula Theatre on the Hatfield Campus of the University of Pretoria.  Following a two-day conference on “Deconstructing the Past”, scores of church leaders and respected theologians joined hundreds of invited guests for this event.  In addition to the presentation of certificates to the Great Cloud of Witness laureates, a public lecture was offered by Professor Jurgen Moltmann from the University of Tubingen which highlighted those values on which the Faculty of Theology rests.

The Faculty’s vision is to be a faculty recognised for its creative engagement with life-giving theology and religious insight, of service to academia, church and community. In its mission, it is commited to providing relevant theological and religious education; nurturing transformative leaders; undertaking quality research; promoting justice, peace, the integrity of creation and a reconciling diversity; and engaging with people on the margins of society. 

- Author Petronel Fourie
Published by Petronel Fourie

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