How Christian is Calvin?
I could not disagree more with the poets who wrote you last Christmas (“Rhymes and Reasons,” Director’s Desk, spring 2011) if their intent was to convey that Calvin has compromised its Christian foundation. The Christian perspective has been woven into every one of my daughter’s classes, including calculus, physics and biochemistry. She has been required to identify, acknowledge and prepare herself well to address the apparent contradictions that exist between the natural sciences and religion. Her required theology classes have prepared her to explain and defend her Christian faith. There has been zero tolerance for immoral behavior on campus and attitudes that diminish one’s Christian witness.
My daughter is now a senior at Calvin. She has received an outstanding education from absolutely wonderful professors who have given her more than just a general liberal arts education and scientific understanding. They served as examples that a person can be highly intelligent, well educated and a Christian—a person the world claims cannot exist.
My daughter has matured into a woman that both her father and I are very proud of. Her Christian faith has been challenged, has grown and is more grounded because of her Calvin experience.
Grand Ledge, Mich.
Thank you most sincerely for the beautiful manner in which you disarmed critics of our beloved college. Having been a pastor for 52 years I can understand some of the hurts you experience in a public position. Every time something arises about the college I know that administrators of Calvin are going to hear from those who love to find fault and stir up controversy.
My parents discouraged me from attending Calvin as they said they could not help me financially. After attending another school for three semesters I knew that I was going to Calvin even if I had to work my way through. Attending the college is one of the greatest blessings the Lord has ever bestowed upon me.
Garret Stoutmeyer ’55
Haines City, Fla.
Your protestations notwithstanding, I think you must agree with the premise or throw objectivity out the window. At some point several years ago I became increasingly disappointed by the stories I would read in The Grand Rapids Press about things that were going on at Calvin. You have challenged readers to be specific in their criticisms, and I have to admit that it has been a while since I made my decision to support Hillsdale College so I would have to be general, but my issues would parallel the writers of the poem. The Christian Reformed Church has drifted left and taken Calvin with it.
The other problem is that you have priced yourself out of the market. That your enrollment has not declined more is directly attributable to Sallie Mae and student loans for all comers. You folks are going to have to figure out how to do it for less, or just 100 less students than you would like for enrollment is going to end up as a goal to be desired. Your core constituency is made up of people like me, and we can’t afford to send our kids to your school, especially when your values don’t seem to reflect mine any longer.
You were far too kind to call that critical poem “clever.” As a loyal supporter and alum of Dear Alma Mater, I could easily respond with equal “cleverness” about how Calvin has “lost its way” from a reverse perspective (too Republican, too conservative). In so doing, I’d be equally wrong.
Your invitation to “come-and-see” is the best defense and challenge to such critics, and is also important for loyal supporters as well, to support a place with knowledge about its mission, status, programs and people. The poem also ignores the obvious— ask any private college, any private school—that the economic downturn has a factor in enrollment, and I’m sure in support as well.
What I do know is that Calvin both wrestles with and embraces cultural/ theological/educational issues, and those clinch-holds resemble each other, if not being simultaneous. To me that’s the place to be, wrestling and embracing. “‘Reformed’ really should be ‘reforming,’” according to Dr. Clarence Vos, as I recall from a ’70s Calvin religion class—it’s ongoing, not pastor perfect tense, already accomplished.
Thanks for putting the issue in front of alums.
Jeffrey Carpenter ’77
Palos Heights, Ill.
I was amused by the poem “What is the true problem?” I attended Calvin from 1963 to 1967 and my son, Dan, attended Calvin from 1998 to 2003. Calvin certainly has changed, in my opinion, for the better.
In the ’60s The Christian Laymen’s League denounced Calvin as liberal and The Banner editor used his position to critique the faculty and student body at every opportunity (he found many, especially The Bananer spoof). What truly Reformed person could ever direct satire at his magazine! A seminary professor almost lost his position for paraphrasing Peter the Apostle saying that God willed the damnation of no man—a reasonable statement for a man whose passion was missions. Carl McIntire used his radio show to call us Communists. And the wonderful Dr. Smedes, who was judged too liberal for the seminary, bailed out for California and became a best-selling author (and, ironically, won the seminary’s highest honor the year after his death).
As for campus life, chapel was mandatory and, except for the clever Chaplain Pekelder, boring. The administration enforced attendance by appointing a few students to spy on the rest as “Chapel Checkers.” Two or three misses and a letter went home and, of course, the parents did not understand. Movies were not considered an artform useful for Christians. Dancing was forbidden although the music was at its all-time best. Women’s dorm hours were strict; guys could do as they pleased since all the vulnerable Christian Reformed girls were safely locked away. Reformed Doctrine, also mandatory, was ably taught by professors like Primus, Smedes and others. The faculty was generally intelligent, informed, helpful, kind, considerate and dedicated Christians. All in all—I loved it; especially after I met Kathleen (my future wife)!
It was, in spite of its critics, Reformed. Was it spiritual? Certainly as much as the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) for that time. It was restrained. Of course, everyone had their own experience.
My thoughts about Calvin today are that the school is still very Reformed but much more outwardly spiritual. Like the CRC, less concerned with matters trivial. It is also much more diversified, which may make it look less Reformed. There seems to be less interest in the finer points of theology, which I regret (although I do not see The Canons of Dort as the high point of Calvinism and I do not think John Calvin would either). My son had a very good experience at Calvin. The interest that faculty, administration and coaches take in the welfare and spirituality of each student is phenomenal.
Marv Hoekstra ’67
Calvinism too narrow
I grew up Calvinist, went to two Calvinist elementary schools (one in Minneapolis, Minn., and one in Seattle, Wash.), a Calvinist high school in Seattle, and then attended both Dordt and Calvin. When I read the about Prof. James K.A. Smith’s book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, (spring 2011) I found it quite interesting. While I absolutely agree with both Smith and Hansen of Time magazine (whom were mentioned) that Calvinism offers both more “fresh intellectual air” than Evangelicalism tends to and a minor antidote to the “chronological snobbery of our culture,”
I couldn’t help but note the irony of Smith’s suggestion that that antidote involves “constantly looking back to Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin.” In the grand scheme of Christianity, looking to Calvin, who lived only 500 years ago, or Edwards, of only 300 years ago, over today’s theologians, is like preferring the thoughts of a couple teenagers over those of infants. It’s a start, but it’s hardly a counter to the intellectual stuntedness of our times.
If we really want to get serious about embracing the entire intellectual and historical treasury of Christianity, we need to be willing to acknowledge that Calvin didn’t found the Church, Christ did, “on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20). The “world- and life-view” of Calvinism is still too narrow when compared to the richness of the entire 2,000-plus-year history of the Church. Read Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Rome, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Ambrose and Augustine, etc., and you’ll find far more breadth and freshness than either Calvin or Edwards display. And if they disagree with Calvin, remember not to give in to “chronological snobbery” since, while Calvin was mired in the antagonism and confusion of his time, many of these men, the true elders of our faith, still had the teaching of the Apostles practically ringing in their ears. Trust them.
Jackford R. Macarius B. Kolk ’06
James K.A. Smith responds:
Thanks for your interest. I’d encourage you to read the book, since it clearly emerges there that the real “hero” of the story is St. Augustine. So I don’t think I’m guilty of what you’re suggesting. Indeed, I describe the Reformation as an “Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic.”
Cheering on the Knights
Recently our school (Northern Michigan Christian in McBain, Mich.) held a live-streaming “watch party” for the Calvin women’s volleyball team. An alumna of our school, Erin VanderPlas, is on the volleyball squad, and several local Calvin fans and family members got together to watch the championship game on a big screen here at Northern Michigan Christian School. We projected the game onto a large screen via our Internet computer feed. About 30 individuals came to watch, and the athletic department provided free popcorn to the fans. It was great fun to sit, cheer and celebrate together as we watched the match. Congratulations to the Calvin volleyball team and to Erin on a great season!
Julie Rottman VanHaitsma ’88