In memoriam John Hesselink

(21 March 1928 - 28 October 2018)

John Hesselink was one of the founding fathers of IRTI. He participated in writing the very first draft of its aims and structure. John was a warm and social person, with many contacts all over the world. He was also a striking personality, driving in his old classic aubergine Pontiac to a restaurant for a breakfast with Dutch pancakes, and bringing people together whom nobody could reconcile.

 

Roots

John’s family roots were in the east of the Netherlands, but his family emigrated long ago, taking the best of reformed spirituality from his roots and leaving away any rigidity that easily makes Calvinism hard. So the Van Raalte chair at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan fitted well to him, and he was able to shape this chair as a provision for future theologians.

John became a missionary in Japan right after his seminary education. He learned that Calvin’s thought was helpful in teaching an English Bible class in a Tokyo high school, which was an important motivation to become a student of Calvin. Out of five students of his first English Class, four students became Christian believers later.

Study under Karl Barth 

He became a good friend of Emil Brunner who served in Japan as a visiting professor. John applied successfully to study under Karl Barth at the University of Basel, which made Brunner unhappy. Later Brunner understood, after receiving John’s mature explanation, the motivation of his study under Barth.  He always remained involved in the network of former students of Barth, such as Hendrikus Berkhof. He was not just a student of Barth, but developed their relation to the freedom of friendship. It was by this relationship that he succeeded to reconcile Barth and Brunner, who turned from close friends to harsh opponents after the conflict about the ‘Anknüpfungspunkt’ in 1934. After a bitter estrangement for more than twenty five years, John brought the two old men together, resulting in the famous photograph of the former brothers who had drifted away.

Warm hart for students

After his study, he went back to  Japan as a missionary. His optimistic character was sustaining the patience which is necessary for this work. Doing mission in Japan was really a challenge, but John enjoyed his task and loved Japan. After his return he became professor at Western, a man of the world in the small town of Holland at an inlet of Lake Michigan, teaching, fund raising, doing research. So devoted was John in his teaching that his students often received their papers back with a full of comments in red. John always prepared numerous articles and handouts for students each class session, which generated a joke: ‘No tree can survive around Western Theological Seminary because of John!’ Not only his first-class scholarship but also his warm heart for the students, especially international students, influenced the whole seminary community in various ways. I (Jaeseung Cha) still treasure a box of all kinds of newspaper articles on Korea, given to me by John while I was a student.

Contributions to theology 

John wrote solid contributions to theological research, especially on Calvin, resulting in fine publications such as his books Calvin’s Concept of the Law and Calvin’s First Catechism. But he never forgot the people in the church, helping to understand what it meant to be Reformed and taking away misunderstanding, e.g in his book On being Reformed. As he was a stimulating colleague, even more he was a stimulating professor, challenging students to develop their abilities, each according to their own interests and gifts.

Founding father of IRTI

When the idea was considered to cooperate as scholars in the reformed tradition it was self-evident that John not only would participate but that he also would be the representative from the US in the board of IRTI. During the conferences John was always clearly present, but never dominant. He was a good friend and a fine colleague and he was missing during the last years. Age and a fading health took their toll. He will be remembered as one of the founding fathers who helped to give IRTI its character as a community of colleagues, rather than a formal institution.

Bram van de Beek and Jaeseung Cha