June 16, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

From an early age, Philip Holtrop set off on a path to ministry. That road would eventually lead to his ordination in 1971. But, along the way, Holtrop would develop a thirst for learning, and this thirst would enrich both his path and equip him as a guide for many other navigators of the faith. Holtrop, 89, died on June 12.

Holtrop’s journey went through Calvin College (now University), where he earned a bachelor of arts in classics and speech. He then continued on to earn his doctor of theology (ThD) from Calvin Theological Seminary, before earning a doctorandus theologie degree from the Free University of Amsterdam.

From student to teacher

In 1963, Holtrop began his teaching career at Illiana Christian High School and Trinity Christian College. He would return to teaching in 1977 at his alma mater, Calvin, but not before being called to serve as a pastor for six years at North Haledon Christian Reformed Church in New Jersey.

“He was a representative of the generation of faculty in the department who moved from the CRC pastorate to the professorate,” said Rick Plantinga, a former colleague and student of Holtrop’s in Calvin’s religion department.

During his more than two decades of service at Calvin as a professor of theology, Holtrop taught numerous courses in the area of Christian doctrine, ethics, historical theology, and cultural theology. While he was well-versed and passionate about these topics, his teaching of responsibility, excellence, and respect for others as God’s image bearers deeply influenced his students.

Committed to understanding

And while he was committed to teaching students, he was also every bit committed to advancing understanding among his fellow scholars. His chosen field was historical theology, and that’s where he became a specialist in the Calvinist wing of the Reformation, and more specifically in various developments and nuances of the doctrine of predestination. In fact, he wrote a two-volume dissertation for Harvard Divinity School, where he earned a PhD in Theology in 1988, on a matter related to the topic. His impressive work earned him a Mellen Award and was published by the Edwin Mellen Press.

Upon retiring from Calvin in 1999, his tribute stated “For twenty-two years he has served here, and it is evident in his dedication and commitment that he has regarded this too as a ministry.”

Engaging cross-culturally

And it’s important to note it was a ministry with global reach, both during his time at Calvin and well into retirement.

“Phil felt a calling to be a bridge between our country and China,” said Larry Herzberg, professor emeritus of Asian Languages and a colleague of Holtrop’s.

Holtrop made dozens of trips to China to participate in academic exchanges, teach at universities, and to establish opportunities for study in the United States and China. During this time, he and his wife, Marie, made thousands of student contacts during their time teaching at Beijing University.

“Phil’s legacy is in the large number of students from China he brought to this campus,” said Herzberg. Among them, are students holding significant leadership positions. “He was always ready to dialog to discuss ways to connect Calvin with China.”

One of the tangible and lasting ways this connection continues to be deepened is through the Phil and Marie Holtrop Chinese Student Scholarship, which is meant to assist Chinese students from mainland China who desire to come to Calvin and are committed to building “cultural bridges” between China and the West.

Holtrop is survived by his wife of 64 years Marie; son Steve Holtrop and daughter-in-law Sharon Bouma, son Phil and daughter-in-law Sandy, sons Dan and Pete, along with Hongqi Fan and Rose Wang; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A memorial service and celebration of life is being held on Friday, June 16, 2023 at Eastern Avenue CRC. Visitation will begin at 1 p.m. with the service following at 2 p.m.

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