Johan Heyns

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Johan Heyns
Johan Heyns.jpg
Heyns in his study
Johan Adam Heyns

(1928-05-27)27 May 1928
Tweeling, South Africa
Died5 November 1994 (1994-11-06) (aged 66)
Pretoria, South Africa
Cause of deathAssassination
ChildrenChristof Heyns
Ecclesiastical career
ChurchDutch Reformed Church in South Africa (NGK)
Offices held
Moderator of the General Assembly (1986–1990)
Academic background
Alma mater
Doctoral advisor
Academic work
School or traditionCalvinism
InfluencedConrad J. Wethmar

Johan Adam Heyns (1928–1994) was an Afrikaner Calvinist theologian and moderator of the general synod of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) in South Africa. He was assassinated at his home in Waterkloof Ridge, Pretoria.

Early life and education[edit]

Heyns was born on 27 May 1928 on the farm Bloemkraal at Tweeling in the Orange Free State, South Africa.

His father, Flip Heyns, wanted to become a missionary, but could not afford to do so and became a farmer instead. His mother, Maria Beukes, was exiled to Saint Helena during the Second Boer War. Her marriage to Flip Heyns was her second. Since her first marriage did not produce any children, Maria promised God that if He would bless her with a son, she would raise him for His service. Although she did not tell Heyns about this promise until years after he had already been ordained as minister, Heyns would later admit that his mother had played a significant role in his eventual decision to become a cleric.[1]

Being an Afrikaner was important to Heyns since his schooldays. His interests in politics started early, and he became a leader of a youth group in the Ossewabrandwag while still in primary school. (During breaks he would hold meetings and make speeches – an activity which was stopped by the school principal). Despite his father being the leader of the local branch of the National Party and Heyns' early affinity for politics, he would never formally join the ruling party. Although he maintained a strong pro-national stance, his views were tempered through his ability to maintain a unique critical perspective – an asset which would later become a hallmark of his work.[2]

During his high school years the family moved to Potchefstroom and operated a boarding house. His love for the Bible and his faith in God was noted by several theology students who were lodging at the Heyns' residence. At school Heyns was an average student, and showed little interest in the subjects at hand. He did however display a flair for debate and independent thinking on complex topics – after one such discussion (regarding Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory) one theology student voiced his concern to Heyns' parents that the young man might be losing his mind.[3]

Higher education[edit]

Heyns completed his undergraduate studies at the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education where he formed a lifelong friendship with Hendrik G. Stoker, the South African Calvinistic thinker and a central advocate of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea.[4] Stoker's reasoning had a marked influence on the rest of his academic career.[5]

Heyns completed his training as a minister at the University of Pretoria, and decided to continue his theological studies at the Free University in Amsterdam. In 1953 he obtained a PhD under the supervision of G. C. Berkouwer with a thesis titled Die Grondstruktuur van die Modalistiese Triniteitsbeskouing (The Basis of the Modalistic Trinity View).

In 1961 he obtained a second PhD (in philosophy) under the supervision of Stoker. His thesis was titled Die Teologiese Antropologie van Karl Barth vanuit Wysgerig-Antropologiese Oriëntering (The Theological Anthropology of Karl Barth from a Philosophical-Anthropological Orientation).[6]


In 1954, after completion of his theological studies in Amsterdam, Heyns became an ordained minister and served at the Ysterplaat congregation of the NGK. Towards the end of 1960 he transferred to Rondebosch where he counted several Afrikaner politicians amongst his flock (including Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, and P. W. Botha).

Heyns' academic career started in 1966 when he was appointed as lecturer in dogmatic subjects at the University of Stellenbosch. In 1971 he succeeded A. B. Du Preez as professor at the University of Pretoria where he stayed until his retirement at the end of 1993.

During the more than 20 years that Heyns served the NGK as a professor, he exerted an enormous influence on the church. He was distinguished by a large number of publications[7] and he filled many public positions in the church, causing him to be regarded as one of the best known theologians in the NGK.[8]

Heyns's confrontation with Jurie le Roux[edit]

Upon Heyns's retirement, a special edition of Skrif en Kerk, the NGK's journal at the University of Pretoria, was dedicated to his influential theology.[9] In this edition friends and colleagues of Heyns engaged in dialogue, appraising his work on different premisses. Theologians Conrad Wethmar, Willie Jonker and Jurie le Roux were among the contributors. The latter's contribution initiated a controversial discourse, the effects of which became increasingly evident in the subsequent "liberal" viewpoints which gained traction in the NGK since Heyns's death. Jurie le Roux, NGK Old Testament biblical scholar from Pretoria at the time (described as politically conservative[10][11] but theologically more "liberal"[12]), accused Heyns of not engaging with the "unchallengeable" results of historical criticism (Afrikaans: onaanvegbare resultate van die historiese kritiek).

Le Roux argued that if Heyns had done so, he would likely have agreed that it was a) impossible to speak of the unity of Scripture's message; b) imperative to completely discard settled patterns of reasoning (Afrikaans: gevestigde denkpatrone) in Christianity; c) to be accepted that the church can no longer relay its message authoritatively; 4) to be acknowledged that the cosmos in its entirety did not require elucidation by the "light" of Revelation.[13] Heyns responded with grace, but also expressed his serious concern about Le Roux's deductions from historical criticism. Heyns replied that if the acceptance of the results of historical criticism were to lead and force theologians into such interpretations, it would in his view set systematic theologians, besides biblical scholars, on a perilous course.[17] 163. Heyns's words were prophetic, in light of Le Roux's notably supportive review of Fatherless in Galilee (2003), the pioneering historical book by the Jesus Seminar scholar, Andries Van Aarde.[14]

Views on apartheid[edit]

In the 1980s and the early 1990s, Heyns became a central figure in the struggle to change the NGK's stance on apartheid, leading to the church's eventual rejection of that policy.[15] In 1982 Heyns publicly rejected the notion that apartheid was the will of God, and caused a furore at that year's synod by openly supporting multiracial marriages. For a year he stayed out of favour with the church hierarchy, but reemerged in 1986 to become moderator – the highest position in the church. He immediately tried to persuade the church that there was no biblical foundation for apartheid.

Following the NGK Synod of 1986 (at which Heyns presided), tens of thousands of church members and many congregations broke away to form the Afrikaans Protestant Church.[16] In September 1989, at a time when the government indiscriminately crushed all protest marches, mediation by NGK leadership under Heyns convinced the government to allow peaceful protests.[17] This concession heralded the first swing away from the armed struggle to a strategy of non-violent confrontation.

In 1990, speaking for the NGK, Heyns declared apartheid a sin. His theological contributions had a large impact on changing the thinking of the Afrikaner government.[16]


On Saturday evening, 5 November 1994, Heyns was playing cards with his wife and three grandchildren (then aged 2, 8 and 11) at his home in Pretoria. He died instantly when an unidentified attacker using a .303 caliber rifle delivered a single gunshot through a window. The bullet entered at the back of his neck and left near his eye, leaving a wound as big as a man's fist.[18]

Although the police would not speculate on a motive, many were convinced that Heyns was killed by white extremists.[19] Shortly after his assassination, a secretary of Die Burger, an Afrikaans newspaper, received threats that three Afrikaans-speaking cabinet members would be next. The caller told the secretary that he had already lost everything as a result of affirmative action: "We belong… I belong to no organization. And this will not be the last one." Subsequent threats followed, indicating that Mandela was also a target.[18]


  • His Biblical view against Apartheid that led to the schism with and founding of the Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk and the declaration of apartheid as a sin was interpreted by some as an act of treason against the political and ethical values and aspirations of the Afrikaners.

Heyns' assassin left very few clues, and no arrests have been made.

In the book The Tall Assassin: the darkest political murders of the old South Africa it is claimed that he was killed because he was a double agent.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ JA Heyns en die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk en Apartheid Archived 12 September 2014 at the Wayback Machine D.Th. dissertation by Henry Hofmeyr Williams, page 1
  2. ^ JA Heyns en die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk en Apartheid Archived 12 September 2014 at the Wayback Machine DTh dissertation by Henry Hofmeyr Williams, page 3
  3. ^ JA Heyns en die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk en Apartheid Archived 12 September 2014 at the Wayback Machine D.Th. dissertation by Henry Hofmeyr Williams, page 4–6
  4. ^ Theological Development In the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa Archived 30 August 2006 at, by S.A. Strauss. Published in the Theological Forum of the Reformed Ecumenical Council, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, December 1995
  5. ^ The Christian Afrikaners Archived 14 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine A Brief History of Calvinistic Afrikanerdom from 1652–1980 by Rev. Prof. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee, page 84
  6. ^ JA Heyns en die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk en Apartheid Archived 12 September 2014 at the Wayback Machine D.Th. dissertation by Henry Hofmeyr Williams, page 75
  7. ^ "Bibliografie: J.A. Heyns", by R. Venter, 1988. Published in "'n Woord op sy Tyd", Wethmar & Vos (ed.) pages 238–245
  8. ^ "Prof. dr. Johan Adam Heyns - anno sexagesimo", by P.B. Van der Watt, 1988. Published in "'n Woord op sy Tyd", Wethmar & Vos (ed.) pages 1–8
  9. ^ Skrif en Kerk Jrg 15 (1), 1994
  10. ^ "Beeld JOHANNESBURG FINAAL Woensdag 13 April 1994 Bl. 10: Afrikaanse intellektuele lewe: Toekoms duister". Archived from the original on 3 December 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  11. ^ "Beeld Johannesburg Finaal Dinsdag 27 Junie 2000 Bl. 14: Tot dood toe siek Anti-apartheidsteologie die virus". Archived from the original on 4 December 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  12. ^ "Beeld Johannesburg Finaal Vrydag 28 Mei 1999 Bl. 4: 'Bybel nie geskryf vir twintigste EEU' 'Mense moet eerder in God glo'". Archived from the original on 5 December 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  13. ^ Skrif en Kerk Jrg 15 (1), 1994, p162-163.
  14. ^ HTS, 58 (no. 1), p77-99.
  15. ^ Heyns was Strategies op Regte Tyd om N.G. Kerk te laat Beweeg, article in Bult, June 2006, page 30. In Afrikaans.
  16. ^ a b The Apartheid Bible Revisited Archived 8 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine by Prof. Bobby Loubser, University of Zululand
  17. ^ Article in The Natal Mercury, 14 September 1989
  18. ^ a b 1995 Threat: Madiba's Next Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine, news article in Die Burger, 16 March 2004.
  19. ^ Anti-Apartheid Minister Shot Dead in Pretoria, The New York Times, 7 November 1994

External links[edit]

Parts of this Article were translated from additional information available in the Afrikaans Wikipedia-article "Johan Heyns"