Tuesday 7 July 2020

In Memoriam: John H. Kok

by Bob Sweetman (with gratitude to Calvin Seerveld)

On 15 June 2020, ICS’s Senate met via Zoom to engage in that precious act of “sober second thought” around ICS’s academic life. No one knew at the time that John Kok, second-term external Senator, was in trouble. He complained of foot pain that made it difficult for him to walk, but there he was looking little worse for the wear. So, we were shocked to hear of his sudden passing at 1am on 5 July 2020. Nothing prepared us for this “bolt from the blue”: a staph infection that resisted all treatment until his body was too weak to try more aggressive interventions.

ICS and the Reformational tradition of Christian scholarship has lost a lot in John’s passing. He came into adulthood in the late 60s and early 70s as an undergraduate at Trinity Christian College, during the years when it was an epicentre of the Reformational movement in North America. Calvin Seerveld, Peter Steen, Martin Vrieze, Thomas McIntire, Robert Vandervennen made up a significant portion of the then young college’s faculty, and provided a liberal arts education with explicitly Christian verve and excitement (dubbed the ‘high church party’ within Kuyperian Christianity by long-time Calvin University History Professor Ronald Wells). John was one of many students who came under the influence of Cal Seerveld (as well as Martin Vrieze) in those days, inspired by Cal’s charismatic and imaginative teaching which gave rise to a desire to go out and do likewise.

In 1971 John moved with his wife Sanneke to The Netherlands to pursue graduate work in philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam. There he was taken under the wing of Hendrik van Riessen and later Jacob Klapwijk. John began work on his PhD thesis in 1978 and finished it in 1992 under the dual direction of Henk Hart of ICS and Abraham Bos of the Free University. In the meantime, John took a position with Dordt University (then Dordt College) in Sioux Center, IA in 1983. He worked for Dordt from then until his retirement in 2014, and in several capacities. He taught in the Philosophy Department until 1997. From then until his retirement he would serve at the decanal level, first as Dean of the Humanities and later as Dean of Research and Scholarship. In addition, he was for a time the Director of the Andreas Center for Christian Scholarship, and settled into a role as Managing Editor of Dordt College Press, a position he continued to hold after he retired. For decades he represented the Society for Reformational Philosophy (based in The Netherlands) to its members in North America. Just before retirement he was recruited by then ICS President Doug Blomberg to serve on ICS’s Senate and he became its Chair and ICS Chancellor for a term (2014-2019).

Such was the institutional context for his service of the Reformational tradition, but it does not yet communicate the tenor and texture of that service.

John Kok was a man who embodied the most characteristic (and characteristically modest) ideal of Dutch Calvinism—to be useful in the Lord’s work. John was ever useful and never flashy. If he was once inspired to go and do like charismatic Reformational speakers and teachers like H. Evan Runner, Peter Steen, or Cal Seerveld, that did not turn out to be his calling. He was called to be useful in less flamboyant ways, and in this he succeeded quietly and steadily. His work for the Society for Reformational Philosophy is a good example, but there are so many others.

In his thesis, John took on the formative background of D.H.Th. Vollenhoven as a philosopher of mathematics and logic. This was archeological work in rock hard soil. This was not yet the Vollenhoven who along with Herman Dooyeweerd would found the Reformational tradition. And yet this was the core formation in philosophy that Vollenhoven would receive, and the habits of thought he would acquire in those early years would remain important to his later work. If one was to understand how Vollenhoven went about philosophizing as a Reformational philosopher one needed to have a sense of whence he came to the idea of Reformational philosophy, for that remained operative in so many subliminal ways. So John's book Vollenhoven: His Early Development (Dordt College Press, 1992) was an instrumental support for Anthony Tol’s far more ambitious analyses of the thought of Vollenhoven over the next two decades.

One should also not forget John's long efforts to support the work of Kor Bril, Vollenhoven’s most explicit successor at the Free University. John worked for years as a translator of Reformational thought, and his dual language edition of Vollenhoven’s Introduction to Philosophy (Dordt College Press, 2005) has been instrumental in introducing Anglophones to Vollenhoven’s thought. More useful service.

Under his management, Dordt College Press has become a central provider of Reformational publications in English. One thinks especially of the volumes of Cal Seeveld’s publications, including a six-volume set of his most important articles and book chapters and his just-released study of the book of Proverbs.

What equipped John to these many humble but crucial services was his capacity to knit a close attention to detail to the sprawling vision of God’s Kingdom that is so central to the Kuyperian and Reformational scholarly imagination and intention. It was this attention to detail that allowed him to patiently work through the mathematical and logical work of the early Vollenhoven, that supported his patient work as translator and as editor, that facilitated his administrative being as dean and director and managing editor. He was careful, even fastidious, conceptually, but that care was always in service of the Creation-wide Kingdom and always suffused with a deep love of the scriptures. Indeed, the latter love took form in his heart as a delight at the opportunity to exhort from CRC pulpits in his last years.

Here was a man who served his Lord well and truly, who was a true friend of ICS. And we remember him with gratitude to God for the gift that he was to us in life.

The memorial service for John is to be held on Wednesday, July 8, at 10 am CST. The service will be live-streamed on Facebook at the Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, IA. If you wish to attend this service virtually, you will need to like their page to have access to the live-stream: https://www.facebook.com/Covenant-CRC-520064914738965/