An Interview With Dr William Hendriksen
The publication of William Hendriksen's Commentary on the Gospel of John in 1959 was, as events were to prove, a major development in the history of the Trust. The volume had an immediate and far-flung influence and thereafter, along with the works of Dr Lloyd-Jones, Hendriksen's Commentaries were to be the most popular of all the Trust's publications by contemporary writers.
The bond between the author and his British publishers had been firmly established for twenty years when we had the joy of welcoming Dr and Mrs William Hendriksen to our offices in Edinburgh on October 9, 1979. It was a day we shall not forget and in the course of it the following interview conducted by Iain Murray was recorded.
I.H.M. — Dr Hendriksen, perhaps you would like to begin by telling us something about your background and childhood in the Netherlands? Does the name 'Hendriksen' mean anything in Dutch?
W.H. — It simply means 'son of Henry'. The name occurs quite a bit in the Netherlands. I was born on Sunday, November 18, 1900. It is hard for me to think back to when I was two or three years of age but some of my first impressions, particularly of my father and my mother are important.
My father, Bernardus Antonia Hendriksen was a carpenter and he also wrote a book of Dutch poetry. He was born in Harderwijk, in the Gelderland province of the Netherlands, in 1857. He had no high school education but he was a very bright man and a perfectionist, with no end of patience. He became a carpenter and as there was more work in Tiel he moved there and met my mother, Jannetje van Ravesteyn. She was born in Buurmalsen, a village near Tiel, also in the year 1857. They married and lived in Tiel where my father had a carpenter's business. They were not rich people — just people with moderate means. I was the youngest in a family of eight sons and one daughter. One of these brothers died as a baby before I was born, but six brothers and one sister all lived together.
In my childhood days we had in Tiel a very good, kindhearted and wise minister whose name was Dr Gerrit Keizer. He was a wonderful man whom I will never forget. He impressed me deeply in my very young years — not so much by his preaching (for he was not an orator) but by his life. I was not baptized in the Reformed Church but was baptized in the State Church.
My earliest religious impressions came from my father and mother who were certainly both Christians. A Sunday School teacher also exercised an early influence in my life. Perhaps I was only four or five years of age when Dr Keizer began to make a definite impression upon me.
I remember one occasion when we were all sitting around the table at home, together with the lodgers who lived with us. Someone asked what I wanted to become when I grew up. I replied that I wanted to become a minister because I loved the Lord and thought it would be wonderful to speak about Jesus. They all began to laugh. In those days children of people with moderate income could not become ministers because their parents did not have the means. 'I don't care how much you laugh, I want to become a minister', was my response. I attended a Christian school where there were excellent teachers. The discipline in the schools of the Netherlands in those days was generally better than it is today and educational standards were high. I remember, for example, that although we began to do arithmetic on slates we were soon required to work out our sums mentally.
When I was ten years of age the family moved to America, sailing from Rotterdam to New York on the Holland-America line. Relatives of my father had preceded us across the Atlantic. They had got on well and one of them even wrote a book about America and his adventures! Some of these cousins revisited the Netherlands and called on our family. They told us all about prospects in America and the favourable religious circumstances. As a result, my eldest brother Gerriet went. He was there for about three years when three of my other brothers joined him. Our lack of money made it necessary for us to move in stages, but eventually the rest of us went. I was ten years of age when I came.
At my first American school I was put back one year because I knew no English. But that straightened itself out quickly, and before long I went from fourth to sixth grade, rejoining my original class.
In the seventh grade I asked the Principal one day whether he would allow me to take the eighth grade examination (the two grades worked in the same classroom). For some reason Mr Andrew Blystra, the Principal, took a kind of special interest in me and he allowed me to, take the eighth grade examination — which I passed.
Prior to that exam I had made an agreement with my parents. I asked them whether, if I took the examination and passed, they would then allow me to go on to the High School. They agreed. I did pass and something happened which was really too bad — there was no Christian High School where we lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, only a good public school which I was to enter. But before I could do so some people started a Christian High School (which should never have existed) and so my parents, instead of sending me to the public school decided I should go there. It proved to be a school which lasted only a very little while. I left, in fact, before the end of its existence. One morning one of my brothers called me when I was still in bed to report that Mr ... wanted a boy to work for him as a pedlar of vegetables, so I had better get to work since everyone else was working to help pay for the house which my parents had bought.
With my school-days over I worked at various jobs, first of all peddling vegetables and cutting wood each morning before I started. Later I changed jobs and worked for a while for a grocery store. My last job was at a printers, folding the pages of composition books. My rate of work began with 15 an hour, and increased to a couple of hundred! We worked at least eight hours a day.
One day I said to my father that I still had set my mind on becoming a minister and I can remember his answer: 'Nothing will ever come of it' — a comment which I well understood, for we certainly had no means. When I was fifteen I noticed an advertisement for Carnegie College which offered a two-year high school course by correspondence, enabling pupils to work by day and study at night. I did this two-year course, and finished it in nine months.
At this same time my mother died and my father grieved — the relationship between my mother and father was very close. In these circumstances he decided that he wanted to make a trip back to the Netherlands to see his relatives, so I went with him. I had my sixteenth birthday there.
After we returned to the States, my former teacher, Mr Blystra comes into the picture again. He had heard how I had completed the Carnegie course. In those days we did not need many qualifications to become a school teacher and so he invited me to become a substitute teacher until one teacher, who had been drafted into the Army, returned. That was only for four months until the Armistice was signed. I taught in Roseland, Illinois. I was not quite 18 when I began to teach. (When I had gone to the Netherlands with father the house in Kalamazoo had been sold and so I had no home to go to).
I then applied for some positions as a school teacher. I got some appointments and went to Hospers. There I had all eight grades in one class. There were twenty-three children when I went and thirty-four when I left. I taught everything!
When I went there I had only a conditional certificate (not a real teaching certificate). I had to take examinations and get the various necessary certificates. In the meantime I also wrote to a good friend, the Rev Anthony A. Koning. He was studying for the ministry and was in Calvin College. I asked him about various books that I would need. I got the various books he mentioned and worked through them — Reformed Doctrine, Archaeology, Latin, Dutch, etc.
I studied these things, and then at the end of about two years as a school teacher in Iowa I applied for financial assistance from Calvin College. I was given the subject 'Creation' and had to write an essay on that and read it to the ministers so that they could decide whether or not to start me. On the basis of all that, and the basis of the teacher's certificate, I was admitted to Calvin College and started in 1921. There was only a small group of students.
I took examinations in Archaeology and Reformed Doctrine and passed both. In those days they paid much more attention to languages than today. I started with fourth year Latin during my first year at College. But I had never done the first three years! I asked Professor Rooker before the class when I could take the examination on the first three years of Latin. He made me recite several items in class — we did Vergil. After the period was over I went to him again and asked — When can I take these examinations? He said I could do it all right and he gave me a slip for the first three years!
I made the four years of college in three years. For some of these years I was pretty poor physically. I lodged at various places. For a while I had only lodgings and bought a meal myself. Sometimes I had a good boarding place.
I graduated from College in 1924, with a Bachelor of Arts, and the Seminary followed. I graduated for the ministry in 1927, and received three calls. I accepted one from a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan. It was an interesting experience and I enjoyed it.
Then I pastored a Christian Reformed Church on Lake Michigan from 1931 to 1935. At that time another student and myself would go to Calvin every week for instruction in Theology, and I gained the ThM degree in 1934.
Then I received an urgent call from one of the largest churches in the denomination, Oakdale Park. They had just had a sad experience with their minister. He was caught in a crime. The congregation was in an uproar. Of course, it was impossible for him to stay. They knew about me because I had preached there several times, and they extended a call. I did not want to go and my people did not want me to leave. But pressure became so great that I accepted that call.
I married Rena Baker when I was still studying. I was boarding with her family! We married in 1925 and she died in 1960. We had three children, Bernard, Daniel and Geraldine. Today my oldest boy has a fine position as personnel manager in a large firm in Grand Rapids and is involved in the work of the church there. Daniel has a Doctorate and two Masters degrees. He is a Professor of Linguistics at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and vitally interested in the work of the church. Geraldine is married to a minister in a large suburb of Grand Rapids (Christian Reformed Church) and so is also involved in the Lord's work.
I.H.M. — How long were you at Oakdale Park?
W.H. — For seven years and after that I became Professor of New Testament.
I.H.M. — Was it a difficult decision to leave Oakdale to go to the Seminary?
W.H. — Yes, I was attached to the congregation but I had by that time already written some of my books. Before I took up that position I went to Princeton and met my residence requirements for the Doctoral programme. There was a Hebrew examination and soon after that an exam in Latin, as well as the other branches of biblical studies. It was all required for a Doctorate. After I completed the residence requirements I didn't immediately write my dissertation, but taught at Calvin, and in 1948 handed in my dissertation and was given a Doctor of Theology degree. The title of the thesis was 'The Meaning of the Preposition anti in the New Testament'.
I.H.M. — What did you think of Princeton as a theological school?
W.H. — It stood very high as a theological school. It didn't just give the Doctor's degree away! Theologically it varied. Some teachers were far more liberal than others and some more conservative.
I.H.M. — Were you in residence for one academic year?
W.H. — Yes.
I.H. M. — How did you find the churches at Princeton?
W.H. — The churches at Princeton itself were not what we would call reformed. The minister of the Presbyterian church at Princeton was rather on the liberal side. Of course, it did have the famous Princeton choir but the sermons were not what we would like to hear. This didn't bother us too much because we would go to Christian Reformed churches in the neighbourhood or preach ourselves.
I.H.M. — Who were the Professors at Calvin when you joined the faculty?
W.H. — Kromminga, Bouma, Wyngaarden, Berkhof, Volbeda.
I.H.M. — It would be good to have a few words about Berkhof.
W.H. — Berkhof, besides being an eminent theologian, was one who, you might almost say, laid the foundation both of dogmatic and exegetical theology at Calvin. He was also a humourist. He seemed to be a very formidable individual, worthy of great respect; but if he was visiting you his humorous side would come to the front!
One day he was preaching somewhere. He preached in the morning and, of course, wanted to know how the sermon went over. He was sitting at the table at noon and the farmer's wife had not been saying much, but all of a sudden she looked at him and said, 'I was thinking this morning when you were preaching what a wonderful farmer this man would make and what the farm has lost in not having this man'. He was physically very big! Some, I imagine, were more influenced by one professor, others by another. Volbeda and Berkhof were in my estimation the most outstanding Professors there, but I have immediately to qualify that, because if you were to ask some others they would give you an entirely different answer.
I.H.M. — Could that also reflect any theological differences? We notice that in some circles Berkhof is not as popular as he once was.
W.H. —The fault was not with Berkhof!
There was a transformation, an upheaval in Calvin Seminary, and in that upheaval several Professors went out and others stayed in. I had the solid backing of Volbeda and Berkhof who wanted me to remain a Professor. All I shall say is that it was a big upheaval. I received a call later on from the Byron Center Church. It was a very large church although not as large as Oakdale Park. They were wonderful people. I served that church for about eight years. My wife died while I was pastor of that church and then after I had been there for eight years I received two calls in the space of about ten days, one from Creston Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids (a small church), and the other from one of the largest churches. This was the church where, at one time, Herman Hoeksema was the pastor. When I received the call it had grown considerably again and they called me. I was at that time beginning to be quite interested in writing so I was reluctant to become pastor of a large church. I accepted the call from Creston although Byron Center wanted to keep me. We were in Creston from 1961 to 1965.
I.H.M. — Would you like to say something about your first wife?
W.H. — My first wife was a courageous woman, a wonderful wife and mother to her children. I often marveled about the things she would go ahead with when I hesitated! When she was sick with cancer which was terminal, and knew she was going to die, she advised me on her deathbed to marry Reta, whom we knew well. When she gave me that advice I had pretty well determined I would never marry again. But I did!
I retired in 1965 — on the one day in the year when ministers have a right to retire! Before that there always was a pressure in the Christian Reformed Church from those who wanted me to retire early so that I could complete my series on the New Testament. I then moved to Boca Raton, Florida.
I.H.M. — How did the vision for the New Testament Commentary begin?
W.H. — I did not originally have a vision to write a commentary on the whole New Testament. I was giving a course on John's Gospel and the commentary grew out of that course. After John was first published in 1954, I went on to 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
I.H.M. — And by the time you had completed 1 and 2 Thessalonians were you planning the New Testament?
W.H. — I thought I should go on with it. I received encouragements in connection with John. Of course, Dr Lloyd-Jones wrote a very fine introduction to the British edition and others encouraged me and then, of course, later on these books were translated into various languages.
I.H.M. — What languages have the books appeared in?
W.H. — I know that More than Conquerors has already been translated into six languages, including Dutch, Afrikaans, Spanish and Korean. As to other languages, I have given permission for translation into an Asiatic language. Also Japan was given permission a year ago. I was also asked to give permission for a translation into Italian. About a year ago I received a letter from someone and in that letter they said the Italian translation was making good progress.
I.H.M. — Do you not think that great damage has been done by commentaries which are cold and dry? It seems that this has led many Christians to give up reading commentaries.
W.H. — I think your question gives at least part of the reason and perhaps most of the reason why commentaries are not more widely used. Some commentaries seem to treat Scripture as if Scripture were Plato and then what you get is something which is purely and dryly grammatical.
Of course, I do a lot with grammar. But although that is the basis on which you have to work, that should not be the end, only the beginning. You come to the Bible with the preconviction that this is the Word of God and not the word of man. The more you work yourself into it and believe that Christ is speaking to you then the more likely you are to do the commentary properly. The first thing you do in a commentary is to teach what the Word of God is saying.
I.H.M. — Don't you think that ministers today are not giving enough time to their study?
W.H. — Exactly! If more time and prayer were given to the study of the beautiful Word of God then sermons wouldn't be so hard to make! But I also made it a point in my ministries that if somebody called me up, for example because of death, whenever possible I would rush to see them immediately. Possibly even more important than books is having contact with young people and children. For quite a while I taught all of them. Personal contact with your people helps with commentary writing! But in order to do that you have to live a very disciplined life.
I.H.M. — How would you plan your day when you were in the pastorate?
W.H. — I can't really say I planned it. I always got up early. I used to be up at 5 o'clock until two years ago, and it is somewhere between 5 and 7 o'clock now. I always took care that sermons were ready long before Sunday. A minister must give his life first of all to the people.
I.H.M. — Do you think that one of the great problems of Christianity in the present century has been lack of balance between good scholarship and spirituality? Now these things seem to be separated. Is that correct?
W.H. — I think you have a point. When I was speaking a moment ago, I was thinking of Stonehouse's biography of Gresham Machen. He points this out in the book that Machen was not only a great scholar but was also a very practical spiritual man. The old Princeton was alright in that respect!
I.H.M. — Could you think of one of your books in particular that has given you particular joy and satisfaction?
W.H. — You know, when I work on any book of Scripture that book always in my mind becomes more dear and beautiful. When you are working on the Scripture how your appreciation grows and a tear comes to the eye! The Bible is so marvellous. How can one study, for example, the love of God shown as in Luke 15 and be unmoved?