On Sunday August 20, on a whim, I started reading Murder on the Orient Express, my first Agatha Christie novel. As I began reading, my thoughts turned to a seminary professor who was a big fan of Christie’s mysteries, Dr. Niek Gootjes. His love for a good detective story spilled over into his classroom lectures – it was always like we were examining the evidence with him to discover the “culprit.” As it turned out, that very same day (August 20), God called Dr. Gootjes into his heavenly presence at the age of 75.
Gootjes was a unique professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. Born in the Netherlands, he served as a pastor there and then spent about a decade teaching dogmatics in Korea. By the time I arrived at the seminary in 1996, he’d already been there for seven years. In that time he’d developed his own approach to lecturing. He always had hand-written notes – he told us he did this because he believed it forced him to be more careful. From those hand-written notes, he’d deliver his earnest lectures, usually sitting behind a desk. But observant students would always notice his remarkable ability to cross his legs – the one leg actually crossed over double. That’s agility.
Before classes began in the morning, students would often banter with one another. In the late 90s, there were controversies in the Canadian Reformed Churches about the Lord’s Supper. One morning there was some clever repartee going back and forth about the sacrament when Dr. Gootjes walked in. He heard one of these comments made in jest. Normally he walked in at a brisk pace, sat down, and got down to business. But upon hearing this comment, he stopped in his tracks half way to the desk. Everyone was silent. He said, “Brothers, the sacrament is a holy thing. It is not something to be making jokes about.” That brief chastening left an unforgettable impression.
However, Dr. Gootjes did have a sense of humour. I can still hear him laughing in the seminary lunchroom. One time he appeared in the classroom, sat behind the desk, and said, “If you remember, last time I was rudely interrupted by the end of the lecture…” On another occasion, he asserted, “I have never in my life worn blue jeans. I refuse!” To which a female student responded, “Sir, if you need someone to go shopping with you…” In one of our ethics classes, Dr. Gootjes lectured on birth control. One of the students asked about the Roman Catholic position, “Is there any allowance for the unpredictable nature of some women’s cycles?” Gootjes replied, “I do not know if the Pope knows about that!” In the same ethics course, Dr. Gootjes sagely observed that, with in-vitro fertilization, “the child is conceived without its consent.” Finally, in another lecture, we heard him boast tongue in cheek, “…sometimes my notes are so excellent that I anticipate all your objections.”
In my first year of seminary, Gootjes lectured on the history of the Belgic Confession. These lectures were fascinating. His work on this was later turned into what has become the standard text on the subject, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Baker Academic, 2007). It was those lectures that sparked in me too an interest in the Confession and the life of Guido de Bres. When I was looking for a research topic for my doctorate, I knew I wanted to do something on the Belgic Confession. That was owing to Dr. Gootjes.
Another area where he left his mark was the importance of the active obedience of Christ. By “active obedience” we mean his life of perfect law-keeping on our behalf. This obedience is credited to believers – it forms part of the basis of our justification. Gootjes gave a talk on this subject at a ministers’ conference in 2002. The talk was then later published, both in a journal (Koinonia) and in his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. Through his work, I came to realize that this doctrine needs to be regularly emphasized. It brings God’s people such gospel comfort to know that Christ has meticulously obeyed the law in our place.
One summer I also got to see the more human side of Dr. Gootjes. I was working as a P.h.d. – a post hole digger. We spent a long hot day working on the yard of the Gootjes family, digging some holes, building a retaining wall, and doing a few other odds and ends. At lunchtime, Dr. Gootjes generously served us large glasses of cold buttermilk. At first I was skeptical, but this actually turned out to be quite a refreshing drink. And I’ll never forget the words my beloved professor kept repeating to one of his sons, “Kees, dat mag je niet doen! Dat mag je niet doen, Kees!” [= You may not do that!]
In 2009, I had the privilege of becoming the pastor of Niek and Dinie Gootjes. They were members of the Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton. When I arrived, Dr. Gootjes had already been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease for a couple of years. He was no longer teaching, but was still trying to write. He still knew who I was. But within a couple of years, he could no longer recognize anyone in his life, not even his wife and children. After Dinie could no longer care for him at home, he went to live at Shalom Manor in Grimsby. I visited with him there once, but he was uncommunicative. After that, my visits were all with Dinie to support her.
I give thanks to God for the life and legacy of Dr. Niek Gootjes. I’ll always fondly remember him as a godly man who walked with the Lord in integrity. Not only that, but he was a professor who was always fair, and a scholar always thorough. Knowing him and having been taught by him has been one of my life’s great blessings. I wish the family God’s continued comfort from the gospel promises that Niek embraced.