Hans Rookmaaker’s ‘Four Freedoms’ and Christian Art (Part I)

Dr. E. John Walford is Professor of Art History at Wheaton College, Illinois, where he has taught since 1981. He is author of Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1991), and Great Themes in Art (Prentice-Hall, 2002).  In his most recent project, An Art Historian’s Sideways Glance (Piquant Editions, 2009), Walford explores the potential of bringing an art historian’s knowledge and eye to the practice of digital photography.

My father having died some months earlier, when the late Professor Hans Rookmaaker, Christian art historian, of the Free University, Amsterdam, died in the spring of 1977, I felt that I had lost the most significant man in my life – and I had. I had graduated from his tutelage only months earlier, and was fresh into a Ph.D. program at the University of Cambridge, where my distinguished, German-Jewish, humanist Ph.D. advisor, the late Professor Michael Jaffé kept asking me, “where did you get all that nonsense stuffed into your head?”  That so-called nonsense was the profound Christian wisdom of Hans Rookmaaker, my mentor for seven years.  Rookmaaker had taught me to see and respond to the world from a totally fresh perspective, one informed not so much by my British, secular, and upper-class education, but one informed by Scripture, as filtered through the Dutch Reformed tradition.

In attempting to be a little more specific about what it means, as a Christian, to see and respond to the world differently, I will thus draw from the writings of my former teacher, Hans Rookmaaker. His book, The Creative Gift: Essays on Art and the Christian Life, published posthumously in 1981, addresses the issue of being a Christian and an artist in a broken world.[1] He sketches out two contrasting visions of life, one founded on rebellion and permissiveness, as seen in the culture of his day, and the other based on the freedom a Christian discovers in Christ. It is a remarkable set of contrasts, and worth pondering carefully.

Time does not allow me to do justice to the breadth of his vision of secular bondage and Christian freedom, and the implications of each for how a person sees and engages the world, but I will touch on a few core elements with respect to Christian freedom.

By way of framing his more specific comments, Rookmaaker first sketches out his understanding of the freedom gained in entrusting one’s life to Christ, the importance of exercising such freedom within God-given norms for life, and the implications of this for artistic creativity. He goes on to speak about four dimensions to this freedom that impact how we understand and engage the world.[2] He then contrasts such understandings of freedom with then-current secular notions of freedom, as expressed in the art of his time.[3]

Having drawn out these contrasts, and considered various threats to freedom—coming from both church, state, and society–he points to the enduring task of Christians—including of course Christian artists—to unmask pseudo-gods or false ideals and to reopen a vista toward the fullness of reality.[4] There, in a nutshell—unmasking what is false, pointing toward wholeness of life and renewal–is the core to his vision for the calling of a Christian artist.

In Rookmaaker’s view, the freedom that is found in Christ provides the Christian who is an artist with a well of insight from which to draw a true vision of reality, one that emerges from carefully focusing the lens of biblical wisdom on the world around us. In Rookmaaker’s view, our task then, as Christians, is to work on the basis of the freedom we have gained in Christ’s redemption, looking for positive ways to express a true vision of reality–a reality greater than nature plus man. While Marcuse calls for art that projects a vision of human flourishing beyond the reality principle, Rookmaaker calls us to see reality through the eyes of faith.

What then is the nature of the freedom Rookmaaker is describing? Firstly, it is best grasped in his contrast of secular permissiveness and Christian freedom, as mentioned above, which through juxtaposition echoes the pattern of the consequences of God’s blessings and curses, as recited by Moses in Deuteronomy, chapters 4-8. But, more particularly, Rookmaaker focuses his argument on four critical freedoms: freedom before God, freedom toward ourselves, freedom toward others, and freedom and openness toward nature.[5]

  1. Freedom before God: We have “confidence before God,” Rookmaaker asserts. “We regard him as a beloved Father, with reverence and awe, and we try not to grieve Him.”
  2. Freedom toward Ourselves: We need not be afraid to be ourselves, Rookmaaker proclaims, for Christ has accepted us as we are, with our own personalities. Frustration and self-mortification do not belong to the gospel (Col. 2:16-23). Yet self-realization is also not the aim of the person made new in Christ, since life is both a gift and a task addressed to us as individuals.
  3. Freedom toward the world (others): We may be made to suffer as did Christ, Rookmaaker cautions, but we should not be afraid of the world, which may kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). We have true freedom because we are in God’s hands. He has counted the hairs on our head. As his servants, we can perform our duty, but we need not worry as if the fate of the world depended on our actions. Trust in God liberates us from having to calculate and determine everything ourselves.  Because God wants to work through our weaknesses (1 Cor. 2:1-5), and has pledged himself to answer our prayers liberally, as his children we are free to work without pressure, without fear, without superiority or inferiority complexes. We are not alone, and we do not depend on our good works to gain us a place in heaven. As stated in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Son of God gathers, protects, and preserves the church.
  4. Freedom and openness toward Nature: God’s creation lies open before us, Rookmaaker avers. Because Christ is Lord, we need not fear it as a malevolent force (even though since the Fall nature is not fully as God intended). Neither is the creation a system that runs by itself. Mechanistic laws of cause and effect may describe how the world functions, but they stop short of touching its deepest reality. God is active in it (Deut. 27-30), which is why it is meaningful to pray for blessings, and to give thanks before eating, or to have a national Thanksgiving Day.  We cannot explain every plentiful harvest or natural disaster, but this does not mean everything happens by chance. Like Job (Job 40:6ff), we reach the limits of human understanding, and stand awe-stricken at God’s wisdom in nature, but we need not see nature as a prison that frustrates our plans. This happens only when we make demands upon it that go against its created order, its structural norms.

Critically, Rookmaaker argues that because of these four freedoms, we can recognize that God’s creation is the environment he gave us to inhabit. We are at home here. Alienation is unnecessary. Contact with reality at a deep level is part of the Christian’s life. We are to enter into reality, not try to escape it. The flight from reality is a mark of Eastern and classical mysticism, not of Christianity.

[1] H.R. Rookmaaker, The Creative Gift: Essays on Art and the Christian Life, Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone Books, 1981, reprinted in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, Ed. Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, Vol. 3, Carlisle: Piquant, 2002, pp. 135-244.

[2] Rookmaaker, The Creative Gift, pp. 57-68, 103ff.

[3] Rookmaaker, op. cit., pp. 77-108.

[4] Rookmaaker, op. cit., p. 107.

[5] Rookmaaker, op. cit., pp. 64-68.

Image Credit: Steven Jaehnert


  • Peter S Smith says:

    Thank you John. Great place to start. It is not easy to grasp hold and appropriate the freedoms
    you outline in Rookmaaker. We recognise them but don’t always live them. Away with fears of our own making!!!

    • E. John Walford says:

      Peter: Of course, I don’t believe that anywhere in Scripture or Christian tradition there was a hint that the path is anything but steep, narrow, and hard, but its the goal that provides direction, and certainly has shaped my life, even though I remain fearful, doubtful, at times guilty, and lacking in trust or freedoms to this day. I am still grateful for the concepts that have set my course, from which to steer.

      • peter s smith says:

        Thanks John: Yes- I know we have much to thank Rookmaaker who was there for us at such a formative time, and as Betty says, Put God and Art in the same sentence in a way that makes sense. It is the part that you point to which says really – yes there are no promises of an easy ride – rather the opposite but the freedom, by God’s grace, to keep going, to be obedient frees us and keeps from wrong judgements about what counts as ‘success’. So we quickly get to the point where we realise we are not Rembrandt. Do we give up? No – keep going and use the gifts you have in a neighbourly way. Just by doing the ‘right’ thing you stake out and demonstrate an alternative. That positive stance can become thr ‘critique’ rather than a pointy finger.
        Amen to being grateful for the concepts by which to set our course.

  • betty spackman says:

    Rookmaaker was also a bridge in my being able to put art and God in the same sentence – in the same life . I am so grateful for his work and friendship. But the invitation to freedom he offered to my generation of artists I find is now a much too ‘taken for granted’ thing for my students who are artists of faith in Christian academia in particular. We fought to gain freedom but I think my students now needing to ask what to do with it. Many are in danger of either spiritual apathy or artistic laziness as they enjoy what is perceived as a given – as ‘justificaton’ of their practice. But as Rookmaaker said, art needs no justification. That is not the point, not the focus. Being free in a post humanist world brings incredible new dangers and challenges to young artists and my prayer is that there will be those ready to step into the lion dens of the future. How can we help prepare them?

  • peter s smith says:

    Spot on Betty (we must stop meeting like this).
    The ‘freedom message’ without the full idea of freedom to be Christian is emaciated and like you I sense some just take the freedom bit then kind of ‘wallow’. How do we help? Big question.
    I guess just like you are doing. Try, by God’s Grace to live it – to show it – to embody it – and above all show love in a non- judgemental way.
    We are free to be obedient. Take care.

  • John Franklin says:

    John: Thank you for this insightful glimpse into the work of Rookmaaker. I am intrigued by the four freedoms. The talk of alienation so common in the mid 20th century was often linked with talk about freedom. (One thinks of the existentialists) If I read Rookmaaker’s point correctly our alienation is fourfold and the freedoms cited indicate a restoration – or we might say are outcomes of our response to the call to be reconciled – a call at the centre of the gospel. He makes clear that freedom without love would be licentiousness. The ironly is that love is a binding reality – and it is only in that binding that we find freedom.

    Betty’s point about “being free in a post- humanist world” and the dangers it yields – leads me to ask what notion of freedom is drawing young Christian artists? Does Rookmaaker’s idea of the connection between love and freedom give us an answer of sorts. We might ask what is it that we love? If our loves are properly ordered – perhaps our freedoms will be as well. Perhaps.

  • E K says:

    John, great! thank you for drawing attention to this – never ceases to amaze me how Rookmaaker STILL speaks into the reality of our lives today though culture has moved on so much, yet in the direction he foresaw!

  • E. John Walford says:

    In response to points by Betty Spackman, Peter Smith, and John Franklin, The way I have tried to build for today’s students from an awareness of such freedoms – in contrast to other forms of freedom pursued within our surrounding culture(s) – is to think in terms of developing what I call a “Christ-crafted lens” through which to view the full spectrum of human experience and aspiration.

    Expanding that just a bit, I hold out the expectation that such a lens is ground in study of Scripture and Christian teaching – of both past and present– and includes the rich gift of a truly liberating, Christian freedom. My own experience, and hope for my students is that this will shape the way we perceive others, the world around us, and indeed God. In turn, building further therefrom, I would encourage students to also weigh the differences between what we see through such a Christ-crafted lens–of course, differently inflected for each of us–and how the world is represented by those around us. This should especially include, especially if one is an artist, the vision of life cast by those in the art world–since that is the arena in which an artistically-gifted person has been placed, and can best engage their talents – however limited – for the common good.

  • E. John Walford says:

    One footnote to the above-posted comment: I do not intend what I wrote to imply that all artists are called to engage the art world, per se. I think that the arena in which each of us operates is best determined by our gifts, as well as our human limitations, as well as the concrete, specific, and local reality in which each of our discrete lives is cast – for each context and skill set brings its own unique opportunities, but also unique limitations, and our call is to be faithful stewards with the gifts we have been given, great or small, and that includes the contour of our own limited circumstances. Faithfulness to what we have been given seems to me what God calls forth from us, and He has his ways to open or close doors to wider or more challenging arenas, while some of us he carefully tends in the relative safety of a greenhouse. That said, greenhouses, or hot houses, are chiefly designed to ready plants for external display.

  • Ana Karen Garza says:

    It has been a real blessing to read this article and to know that God has been using His men and women to open fearful eyes like mine to see the reality of the christian life, a redeemed life, not a condemned life. That having creative and artistic gifts is not a curse but a blessing with which God desires me to be a steward for His glory. Glory to God, thank you. I just have a question that came up as I was reading the last paragraph. “We are at home here. Alienation is unnecessary.”, I have trouble grasping this idea because 1 Peter 2:11 calls us strangers and pilgrims in this world. Could you please explain further on this point. I would really appreciate it…

    Thank you,

  • John Walford says:

    Thank you for these comments, and I will attempt, briefly, to respond to your final observation, that Rookmaaker states that “We are at home here. Alienation is unnecessary.”, and that you “have trouble grasping this idea because 1 Peter 2:11 calls us strangers and pilgrims in this world.”

    I, like most of us, also feel alienation within the world as I encounter it, for neither I, nor the world, are free from the brokenness and imperfection that stems from human rebellion against God, and its consequences, as described in the genesis account of the Fall of Humanity, into sin and death. This does indeed result in our alienation from God, ourselves, each other, and indeed also from the natural and cultural environment that we inhabit. So, yes, we humans all, like all of Creation, as is written in the Book of Romans, groan as we await the full redemption that will come with the return of Christ, to fully restore and renew all of His creation. So, yes, we live as strangers and pilgrims in this world, relative to what might have been, but for sin, and what will one day be, thanks to our redemption through the Atonement of Christ, and that of the world with us.

    Within that larger framework, I think that what Roookmaaker is pointing to, but to which he added no such qualifiers, given the brevity of his text, is that God created us to live in this world – not some other environment – and that even though it is sundered by sin, God called His creation good, very good, and entrusted us, His creatures, with stewardship of it, gifting us variously for all that such a responsibility entails. We find our purpose and meaning in this God-given vocation, using our God-given tasks to perform whatever best falls to us within the larger task of being stewards of His creation, and voicing our praise therefore. Yes, far easier said than done, but such a goal can give direction and purpose to our efforts – however limited and feeble they may be, given each of our human limitations, and the limitations which our circumstances also place upon us. Rookmaaker’s point, I judge, is that God so place dus in this world, and although we have sundered its perfection, and brought a curse upon ourselves and on it, this world remains the place in which we are to exercise our gifts as best we can.

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