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The Way to Heaven: Catechisms and Sermons in the Establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church in the East Indies

Yudha Thianto
Published by Wipf & Stock in 2015

Yudha Thianto’s The Way to Heaven examines Malay translations of catechisms and Malay sermons composed by Dutch ministers preaching in the Indonesian Archipelago in the seventeenth century. A tremendous variety of languages were spoken in this vast region (the two loci of Thianto’s focus, Dutch colonial centers of Jakarta in Java and Ambon in the Maluku Spice Islands, are about 1,700 miles apart) but Malay was the lingua franca for trade and for proselytizing Christianity in the East Indies. In focusing on these Dutch-authored Malay texts, Thianto’s book casts interesting light on a set of little-known texts from the Dutch Reformed Church’s early period of ministry in Southeast Asia.

The Way to Heaven investigates the work of Dutch Calvinist preachers in the East Indies in the seventeenth century, particularly how they taught theology and religious practices to indigenous peoples through Malay catechisms and sermons. The Introduction gives the historical background for the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church in the East Indies, setting it in the context of the trade voyages of the Dutch East India Company (the Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie, or VOC). It also summarizes the history of the arrival of Christianity in the region, starting with Roman Catholicism brought by the Portuguese, who were the Dutch’s commercial rivals. In the East Indies, Dutch preachers, or predikanten, were Calvinist Protestants who sought to eradicate Roman Catholicism even as they tried to convert natives.

Chapter 1 examines catechisms translated into Malay, starting with the earliest, a primer for children entitled Sovrat ABC (1611) or “ABC Letter,” attributed to Albert Ruyl, which teaches the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed, the forms for baptism and for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, proper ways of settling disputes among fellow Christians, and set texts for prayers. Similar content, emphasizing the Creed and the Commandments along with prayers, can be found in other catechisms considered here: Abert Ruyl’s De Spieghel vande Maleysche Tale (1612), Sebastiaan Danckaerts’s 1623 Malay translation of the Heidel- berg Catechism, and Josias Spiljardus’s 1657 translation of De Wegh na den Hemel, whose title Thianto takes for his own. These texts do not place much importance on knowledge of the Bible, though later catechisms expect greater biblical knowledge.

Chapters 2 through 4 continue the analysis of the Calvinist teachings in Malay by considering sermons. Because the material is less formulaic, this material provides more insight into what early Dutch preachers considered important. Chapter 2 focuses on the sermons of Caspar Wiltens and Sebastiaan Danckaerts. They fit their examples to the daily life of the Indies even as they criticized the Ambonese’s syncretic adoption of Christianity in retaining traditional spirit-worship. Like the catechisms, Dutch sermons do not emphasize scriptural knowledge, being concerned with doctrinal teachings. Comparing Danckaerts’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer with that from Sovrat ABC, Thianto notes Danckaerts’s translation of heaven as langit, meaning sky, instead of Ruyl’s sorga: though Thianto does not mention it, sorga or surga is a Sanskrit word referring to the realm of the afterlife. Danckaerts’s translation, using more direct language, Thianto suggests, is closer to the spirit of the text, but even he is more concerned with doctrine than scripture.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the sermons of the later seventeenth-century minister, Franchois Caron Jr., the son of a VOC agent and a Japanese woman, who taught the basics of Christianity in the schools. His sermons also engage in polemics against Islam and Roman Catholicism, even as he borrowed vocabulary from Portuguese in his translations. One particular sermon functioned as propaganda for the VOC, as the occasion for it was the anniversary of Dutch capture of Fort Victoria in Ambon from the Portuguese. Caron tried to accommodate to the experiences of the Indies in his translations: Thianto notes that he translated the word “crown” as deystar-Radja (73), or king’s turban, though it is not clear why Caron could not have used words that translate exactly like mahkota or taj, a Persian word in circulation in the period. Caron’s twelve sermons on the Apostles’ Creed consider a range of topics such as the Trinity, Reformed views on revelation, Christ’s virgin birth and resurrection, the election of the saved, double grace, and others. Chapter 4, examining Caron’s sermons on the Ten Commandments, also revolves around many of the concerns of previous chapters. At pains to refute other religions, whether Hinduism or Islam, Caron wanted to ensure good Christian conduct, inveighing against drunkenness, witchcraft, and superstition. Thianto suggests that Caron’s concerns offer a picture of seventeenth-century Ambonese daily life and point to the continuing problem of religious syncretism.

Chapter 5, the last one, considers the administration of the sacrament of baptism, directed by the church order of Batavia to be performed in a public assembly. Thianto returns to the consideration of Danckaerts’s Malay version of the Heidelberg Catechism and Caron’s translation of De Wegh na den Hemel, focusing attention on terms related to baptism to note the linguistic differences of the Moluccas (Maluku) from the language spoken in the west Archipelago. This chapter examines all aspects of baptism, including the form of liturgy of infant baptism, the godparents’ roles, and the liturgy’s Malay prayers, as well as how Dutch authorities dealt with the issue of baptism for illegitimate children produced by European men’s liaisons with Asian women. The chapter ends with an overview of Reformed Protestantism’s growth in the VOC’s first century in the East Indies. The brief Conclusion summarizes the book’s discussion of how Reformed theology was adapted to the East Indies. The Way to Heaven promises a much-needed alternative perspective on the Reformation in the focus on its spread in early modern Indonesia. Thianto brings particular expertise in theology and in the Malay language to the study of a set of texts that have been overlooked by scholars. The book potentially has a significant contribution to make to the subject of the Reformation in the “Global South.” Unfortunately, the analysis of the textual details, however informative, lacks sufficient historical contextualization. We get almost no sense of the careers of the group of preachers studied here or how these fascinating texts might have been used. Given the geographical and chronological distances separating the work and communities of the various preachers, it would have been useful to know something about their specific circumstances. Quite problematic are Thianto’s assertions about historical practice, whether in the Dutch Indies churches or in the daily life of indigenous peoples, which he bases solely on what he found in the catechisms and sermons. But Dutch preachers might not be wholly reliable about native experience.

One of Thianto’s major arguments is that Dutch ministers were more concerned with doctrine than with scriptural knowledge among natives. He argues that catechisms and sermons “took primacy over” the translated Bible, pointing out that the “complete Bible was only translated into Malay in the early eighteenth century” (3). Yet, the Gospels had been translated by Albert Ruyl and his associates, as early as 1629 for the Gospel of Mat- thew. While acknowledging this early translation, Thianto pays absolutely no attention to the Malay Gospels, which, incidentally, the English scholar Thomas Hyde republished in 1677 for the use of the English East India Company. It is not clear why Thianto assumes that the Bible can only play a role in indigenous reception of Christianity if it were available as a complete translation of both Old and New Testaments. If the translated Gospels circulated among indigenous Christian communities, it would surely have been another avenue for Calvinism’s transmission. Moreover, we are given no sense of how wide was the circulation of such texts, whether the translated Gospels or the catechisms and sermons discussed here.

Throughout, Thianto stresses the importance of the translator’s choice of vocabulary, arguing, for instance, with the catechisms, that the presence of Arabic phrases indicates an absence of Christian-Muslim hostility, or noting the use of Portuguese terms testifying to Catholic influence in the region. However, sometimes Thianto’s assumptions are not entirely warranted. He makes claims about language use based on the kind of Malay found in these Dutch-authored texts without acknowledging the possibility that early modern Dutch authors may not have had a completely secure grasp of the language. And such fine-grained attention to translation is not fully integrated into a larger argument. Finally, the book includes numerous grammatical errors, especially in the use of prepositions, missing words, typos, and infelicities of expression. Aside from these problems, the chapters needed better organization; a number end abruptly without any apparent conclusion. Thianto suggests that his work corrects those of scholars of Reformed Protestantism in the East Indies who mainly focus on the perspectives of Dutch ministers, but his own focus is similarly limited to Dutch ministers, though ones who translated into Malay. The topic is timely, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Cite this article
Su Fang Ng, “The Way to Heaven: Catechisms and Sermons in the Establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church in the East Indies”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:4 , 428–432

Su Fang Ng

University of Oklahoma
Su Fang Ng is Professor of English and Clifford A. Cutchins III Professor at Virginia Tech.