In Memoriam  G. Van Dooren as Homiletician and Preacher  - by Dr. J. De Jong

From The 1996 Year Book Canadian and American Reformed Churches

Reverend G. Van DorrenNow that the Lord has taken home our beloved teacher Rev. Gilbert Van Dooren after a full and active life in the service of the Master, we might offer some preliminary thoughts concerning the significance of his work. It is impossible for us to fully measure or understand his role or significance for the life of the Canadian Reformed churches. He worked hard as preacher, teacher and writer to lay the ground work for the future, not only in doctrinal, but also in liturgical and pastoral matters. Let me briefly focus on his work as the first lecturer in the diaconiological disciplines at the Theological College.

He seized this task with a new sense of joy and enthusiasm. And, as he once told me, he found the years of lecturing at Hamilton some of the best of his life. In his work at the College he was occupied with matters that concerned his very life: preaching, pastoral work, and the concerns of the life of God's congregation. And one must admire his feat! He took on this added task along with maintaining a busy pastorate in a large urban congregation.

Without any attempt at being complete, one can trace three major aspects or trends in Van Dooren's work as lecturer in Hamilton. One notices first of all the sustained connection to his first teacher in homiletics, Prof. T. Hoekstra. However, one also notices the impact of K. Schilder, which fundamentally altered his perspective on the sermon and how it must be preached. A final cardinal influence was the doctrinal dispute leading to the Liberation. All of these influences exhibit an ascending line: in the rich diversity of God's revelation, the preacher must boldly proclaim and apply the certainty of God's promises to the gathered congregation.

The Influence of Hoekstra

Van Dooren referred to Prof. T. Hoekstra as "the man who taught us how to preach." The foundation& instruction of Hoekstra never left Van Dooren, either as preacher, or as homiletician. In opposition to the aesthetically inclined and subjectivist tendencies of Schieiermacher as well as to the new so called "word theology' of Karl Barth, Hoekstra defined the sermon as the explication and application of the Word of God. A preacher explains and applies the Word of God. He does not just repeat it, neither does he reformulate it to suit the perceived needs of his own hearers . The Word rules both the form and content of the preacher's primary activity!

In tackling this definition, Van Dooren certainly did not reject it. He did say that in itself it was incomplete, and hence no longer acceptable Yet VanDooren's approach was to expand or fill out this definition with further aspects of the sermon that were in his view essential to it. He stressed two aspects that are of fundamental significance from the point of view of the preacher, proclamation and appropriation. (1)

Perhaps the single most telling sign of Hoekstra's influence can be seen in Van Dooren's attention to the craft or technique in building the sermon. He insisted on a rigorous structure, and he always sought to hold to it himself. For Van Dooren the idea of structure meant that the sermon must have a theme and division, and a "pyramid" structure. These structural principles must be applied according to all the rules of formal homiletics: balance, coordination, simplicity, and clarity - to mention only a few. Hoekstra may even have over-accentuated this element, because for him material homiletics was not based on divisions taken from Scripture but from the effect sermons were designed to have on the hearer. Hoekstra divided the material or subject matter of preaching in three categories according to the styles or effects of the addresses: didactic, proptreptic, or empoetic material.(2) Here formal considerations dominate the division of the material. While Van Dooren broke with this approach, he maintained the abiding importance of Hoekstra's attention to the formal aspects of the sermon. A plan, an outline and a clearly marked structure are essential ingredients to the sermon which not only serve to discipline the preacher in preparing, but also to assist the congregation in following it.

This 'Is not to say that Van Dooren saw the sermon as a rigid, formal address. The text for him was a living reality, and as he was used to saying, the preacher must "crawl into the skin of his text." He urged his students to "talk with the text, and let the text talk to you." He warned them not to bring dogmatics to the text, but to let the text illumine the dogma. The sermon had to be a living reality, a well-crafted but at the same time living and engaging address to the congregation.

The impact of K. Schilder

Another person who radically influenced Van Dooren's perception on preaching and the life of the congregation was K. Schilder. Schilder Pioneered the redemptivehistorical method Of Preaching, and uncovered the Principles and perspectives regarding the way historical material in particular had to be preached.(3) Schiider gave new attention to the date and circumstances of an event, and urged preachers to develop a theocentric perspective on the events to be preached in relation to the whole plan and work of God in Jesus Christ. For Schilder, the Bible was a unity, and therefore each point on the historical line represented a part of the whole. His rule simply Put was: fight. up the part in the fight of the whole.

These initial guidelines to a new approach to historical material led to a resurgence of the preaching of the Old Testament. in time there arose a whole group of ministers and students who began to uncover and articulate principles of interpretation and preaching in relation to historical material in Scripture. The leading ministers were Rev. E.T. Van den Born, Rev. M.B. Van't Veer, Rev. D. Van Dijk and 1. De Wolff. In many respects the redemptive-historical approach, as it came to be called, was a return to the Calvin's interpretive principles with regard to Old Testament passages. What some saw as a new method was in essence a return to the older principles of interpretation as they were postulated by Calvin and other early Reformers.

Van Dooren not only immersed himself in this new method of preaching, but made his own contribution to its development. Critics took it as a schematic and objective form of preaching rather early on in its development. Van Dooren was particularly sensitive to this criticism, but at the same time he did not want to abandon the method because of it. Rather, he looked for ways in which the method could be expanded and improved. To fine tune the method, he pleaded for greater attention to special canonics in the construction of the sermon . (4) This is roughly similar to what other homileticians have called: the purpose of the text. As Van Dooren stressed, one must always keep in mind not only the time of the events, but also the perspective of the author, and the purpose or intent governing the structure of the book. This is essential for applying the text to the hearer.

At the same time Van Dooren was critical of the more recent attempts by other homileticians to weaken or undercut the essential principles of the redemptive- historical method. Returning to the subject in 1989, ten years after his first speech on redemptive-historical preaching at a Ministers' Workshop, one notices a consistent line: the method must be maintained, but improved and adapted according to the needs of the congregation.(5) He was open to make the necessary modifications to the method to ensure that the text is truly opened and applied to the hearer in the pew. But the central rule had to be maintained: preach the historical events as the wonderful surprise of God's salvation work.(6)

The Effect of the Liberation

Van Dooren went through the entire struggle of the Liberation as a preacher. In the doctrinal controversies he sensed that the pulpit was threatened, and that the effectiveness of the sermon was at stake. For him the doctrinal decisions declared binding by the Synod of Utrecht in 1943 essentially formed an attack on the pulpit. His opposition to the imposed binding of the decisions was not theoretical or doctrinal, but the opposition of a preacher caught in the existential struggle of having to preach the word of God to those who were battling with fear and loss, along with uncertainty and doubt.(7)

In the measure that the ecclesiastical authorities tried to eliminate this preaching, the sense of certainty and the conviction of the truth of the older secessionist stand on the covenant grew in Van Dooren's thinking and preaching more and more. Here, redemptive-historical preaching became for him more and more: covenantal preaching . All sequence, order and structure in the magnalia dei pointed him increasingly to the unfailing certainty of the promises of God.

The Liturge

Next to the preaching of the word which was his primary area of concern,
Van Dooren gave a great deal of attention to the development and growth of

the church's liturgy. He showed how the Reformed liturgy was rooted in the Word of God, and how it too had to be approached in a redemptive-historical way. We live as a New Testament congregation with the liturgy of the age of fulfilment. We live under an open heaven, or, as he liked to say, the time in which the Old Testament temple has been turned on end. The holy of holiest is now in heaven where Christ is seated at God's right hand.(8) And we may be living participants in the chorus of praise surrounding his heavenly throne!


Van Dooren also expended a great deal of effort to encourage and promote congregational evangelism. Evangelistics is a relatively young discipline in the family of theological sciences, partly because the opportunities for conscious and combined activity has not always been present in the church's history. Van Dooren worked hard to give a sense of order and structure to this discipline, and to encourage churches to initiate programs that would assist in the goal and duty of the church to "win the neighbour for Christ."

In this area, as a pastor and teacher he did much to put theory into practice. He was an active participant in the early organizational meetings for congregational evangelism held in. Burlington in the early seventies. He was intensely fearful of a growing introversion in the churches, and as he put it, he felt called by the Lord to lead "our beloved churches out of the shelter." The growth of organized evangelism activities in our churches can be attributed for a good part to his influence and leadership in the early years of our church life.

A Churchman

Much more could be said about Van Dooren's rote as the first lecturer in diaconiology in Hamilton. The churches now have a whole group of ministers that received their training in these subjects from him. They all have their own story to tell. And. over the years, 1 think we will notice Van Dooren's impact more and more. As Dr. Van Dam said in his funeral address, Van Dooren was a "church man," a man of the church, an officebearer who carried the church on his heart. Every preacher today who was a student of his does well to hold to the instruction he laid down and follow the example that he set.

J. De Jong

(1) Without going into the problematics here, it can be stated that in general "appropriation" follows the "application" of the Word; however, for the preacher these two factors coalesce. Hence the addition of the term in the definition makes sense. The sermon does not include appropriation, but must be designed to foster it. It is then essential that the text is appropriated by the preacher before the sermon is written.

(2) This follows the division of classical rhetoric, in which the goal of the address is to teach (docere) to move (movere) and to affect (delectare) the heater. Augustine also divided the material this way.

(3) 'We include here the gospels, which can be seen as parallel to the historical material in the Old Testament.

(4) See his paper "In Many and Various Ways. The Significance of Special Canonics for Preaching" Koinonia Vol. 1), 112, (1979) 1-30

(5) "Redemptive-Historical versus Exemplaristic Preaching. Where Do We Go From Here?" Koinonia, Vol. 12 #1 (1990) 1-22

(6) One of his more well-known sermons was on Deuteronomy 29:29. Contrary to what so many preachers (and members!) in his day had made of it, Van Dooren insisted that the text does not deal with election or the "hidden things." it deals with what is about to be revealed!  - what he called "the history of God's surprises."   For the key point in Deuteronomy 29 is: be ready for what comes next.

(7) And We Escaped (Burlington, 1986), (2)

(8) See his The Beauty of the Reformed Liturgy (Winnipeg, Premier, 1980),16-20