For a number of decades Calvinistic Christians have been giving expression to the hope that there might be a “Free University” in America. It has remained, however, little more than an ideal. That the ideal has not been realized may be accounted for in many ways. Not every observer would agree perhaps on all points. But some of these reasons come readily to mind. One such reason is that heretofore we have not been able to achieve the cooperation of Calvinists which would make possible the utilization of such strength as we possess. As experience teaches us daily, nothing is more tragic than to make large commitments without measuring our capacities. On the other hand, an adequate mobilization of all truly Reformed forces has not been achieved, and thus we have been far from realizing our full potential.
An A-I Priority
A second main consideration is the widespread lethargy and lukewarmness which prevail on this subject. Only if men are aroused to give this task A-I priority, only if it is recognized as warranting the status of urgent actions, will this ideal cease to be a mere vision. Zeal for this cause should grip every Calvinist who is concerned at all for Christian education. But even this will not suffice. Christian people who possess a hearty commitment to Reformed principles, and those who may be instructed and aroused to such commitment, must be stirred to action. They must be aroused to the point where they themselves will acknowledge that loyalty to Christ demands the establishment of such an institution and they will come forward to insist upon specific and constructive action for the honor of Christ and the sacredness of his truth. A Free University in America can never be achieved merely through the co-operation of so-called intellectuals. Rather it will require a spiritual movement of Christian faith and obedience that will stir Calvinists everywhere and will constrain them to rally to the support of this great cause.
If we are to achieve co-operation and to get down to rock foundations, we shall need to take stock of our present situation and analyze our strength and our weaknesses. Perhaps we have overlooked certain basic weaknesses that need to be overcome if we are to succeed. Perhaps also we have neglected some of the solid resources which are available.
The Free University of Amsterdam
To begin with what may appear to some to be most remote and inconsequential, we turn to the consideration of the Free University of Amsterdam. Have we begun to take due account of its actual and potential significance for thought and action in America? Is its value largely exhausted in the example it provides of the success of a tremendous venture of Christian faith? Our view is that we shall he guilty of overlooking a powerful ally if we do not go beyond such an estimate of its meaning for us.
In calling attention to the significance of the Free University for American Christian education I would not be misunderstood. A Free University in Americn cannot be a mere imitation of the Free University of Amsterdam. Our University will have to he an American University: manned chiefly by American teachers; appealing largely to American students; geared to some extent to the broader educational structure and pallern in America; concerned concretely with American problems as well as with universal problems. Moreover, no human institution, including the Free University, is perfcct, and we should be selling our sights too low if we merely imitated it. The Free University, like every other worthwhile institution, has its own peculiar weaknesses and perils.
Results in Theology
But we should be grossly negligent and unfaithful if we largely discounted the positive significance of the free University because it has blemishes of one sort or another. No Calvinist who is at all informed as to the state of Calvinism at the present time can overlook the fact that, through the goodness of God. the Free University constitutes an incomparable achievement in the sphere of Christian education and a tremendous spiritual force. Beginning with five professors in three faculties in 1880, it has developed until it has a staff of from fifty to sixty conducting instruction and research in six faculties: theology, arts, law, science, economics and medicine. That learned Reformed men are laboring in all these fields and have produced a significant body of Reformed literature are facts of direct significance for us. Many who read this statement will have some awareness of the prodigious results of such labors in the theological field. Mention may be made especially of the monumental work in systematic theology and biblical exegesis which has become widely known in America. Reformed theological literature in English is as a drop in a bucket com pared with what is being produced in Dutch. In view of the foundational place which the teaching of the Bible must occupy in a truly Christian institution, the importance of utilizing fully the finest fruits of Reformed scholarship in theology, including Dutch literature, will be Widely recognized.
Less well-known is the significant work being performed in the other departments of the Free University, but all of it may be of significance for the development of a Calvinistic university in America. In particular we may profit immensely by taking account of the extraordinary work in philosophy. Philosophy is of incalculable significance for our thinking about a Christian university. Because of its concern with ultimate concepts and principles philosophy must largely serve to integrate all of the research and instruction. Abraham Kuyper himself drew certain basic lines at the very beginning, though he was not a professional philosopher. He did affirm the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thinking as essential to a Christian approach to science. And though he may not be judged to have succeeded in eliminating from his own thinking all remnants of non-Christian philosophy, his foundational insistence upon a thoroughly Christian philosophy of education placed a lasting stamp upon the Free University.
It is a special source of gratification that God came to raise up men like Professors Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven who have not only been true to this basic viewpoint, but have undertaken a reformation of philosophical thinking on the basis of Christian faith. One would not have to be committed to various particulars in their philosophy to be profoundly grateful for their efforts and especially for their insistence that Christian philosophy must be freed from all compromise with pagan thinking. They have in particular centered attention upon the historic tendencies of nominally Christian philosophies to work out a synthesis between Christian thought and the approach of Plato or Aristotle. and have been insistent in urging that all philosophical thinking must undergo reformation through a return to Christian foundations. These men have produced several important books. They have been largely instrumental in bringing into existence a Calvinistic philosophical society with many members in Holland and other countries, a society which publishes an important journal and conducts significant meetings of scholars in various fields. Moreover, through the concerted action of these leaders and the support of Christian people a remarkable Foundation has been established. This Foundation has succeeded in an astonishing manner in securing the appointment of men committed to this distinctive Christian position in philosophy to chairs in Leiden, Utrecht, Groningen and in at least one other institution of university status.
How could we possibly neglect this flourishing, vigorous movement and suppose that we were making the most of our prescnt advantages?
Should we not encourage young men to study at the Free University? Should we not take advantage of the literature produced by this eompany of able Christian scholars? Should we not above all insist that any university that we shall envision shall be unreservedly committed to and teach distinctively Christian philosophy?
The American Scene in General
It is more difficult to evaluate the home front in terms of strength and weakness, even though we seek humbly and with good will to form our estimates of the American scene. Reformed and Presbyterian churches abound and there might seem to be a great host of people who could be aroused to support a Christian University committed to the historic Reformed faith. Lamentably, however, the prospects of that taking place are not bright. Modernism has had a devastating effect upon the faith and testimony of large segments of nominal Presbyterianism. And there is a drift toward a merely broad evangelicalism or fundamentalism, and toward a so-called “middle way” which cannot be clearly distinguished from Modernism, even where there is not on outspoken opposition to the orthodox Christian faith. Moreover, by and large, the leaders and members of these churches are committed to a so-called American conception of educational philosophy which views Christian schools as contrary even to Protestantism. The fact that there is a broader Christian School movement should not mislead us as to the dominantly negative attitude of most American church members to distinctly Christian schools. The religious and educational situation is surely not such as to warrant much optimism as to the general attitude that will be taken toward the proposal to erect a Calvinistic University.
The fact is, however, that the very weakness of the general situation presents a challenge to go forward with the purpose of improving upon the present unhappy state of affairs rather than to drift still further away from Christian moorings. And it is this very situation which also constrains us to seek to secure the fullest possible cooperation of Christians who are fundamentally at one as to the kind of institution that should be raised up.
Westminster Theological Seminary
In viewing the present situation it seems essential to take some account of Westminster Theological Seminary. Though rather intimately associated historically with certain ecclesiastical developments in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and later in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, this Seminary is not under ecclesiastical control. From one point of view it might be regarded as constituting an independent theological faculty, and thus there would be the theoretical possibility of expanding Westminster into a Free University with a number of faculties. The Seminary may also be evaluated as a significant achievement in converging various traditions and securing the cooperation of Reformed men of diverse backgrounds. The recollection of the work of J. Gresham Machen and of other men now associated with the Seminary should guard one from taking the extreme position that, if our university is to be definitely and vigorously Reformed, it needs to represent rather exclusively a single tradition.
Nevertheless, there are substantial difficulties in the path of any movement which might contemplate the expansion of Westminster into a Free University of America. These difficulties perhaps inhere not so much in Westminster itself as in the general ecclesiastical situation in which it must necessarily fulfil its task. Westminster was raised up in a time when the drift from the foundations had developed in a tragic fashion. And though it is not unimportant that it exists within this general American scene and is seeking to Influence that situation as decisively as possible, the fact remains that Westminster, in the near future, could not hope to expand into a university. If a university is to be established soon, such strength as Westminster may be able to eontribute to the university
cause will apparently have to be supplied in somewhat more indirect fashion than would be true if it were to become the initial faculty of the university.
The Christian Reformed Church
Many of the advantages of West· minster are present, and some of its disadvantages are eliminated, if we turn to the contemplation of the Christian Reformed Church and its educational program with Calvin College and Calvin Seminary at the higher levels. This denomination stands squarely in the line of the movement of reformation and revival which originated in Holland in the 19th Century and which flowered through the establishment of the Free University and many other institutions and movements. Due to that history and because of its fruitful contacts with that life and thought in Holland, the ideal of a Christian university has been kept more persistently and hopeFully alive among its members than in any other similar group. Thus also its ecclesiastical life has generally prospered and has so far at least not been undermined by the Modernism which has had devastating effects upon American church life as a whole. The development of its scholarly institutions has also been due in part to the same stimulus. No doubt there have been and are, through the grace of God, streams of spiritual strength in America that have also given impetus to these salutary developments. And our main concern is not to explain the present virility of the Christian Reformed Church. It is rather to emphasize the practical necessity, in any university movement that will offer much promise of success, of giving a central place to the aspirations and strength of this ecclesiastical group.
A Great Potential
Another factor of immense importance is that the solid Christian School movement in America, integrated through the National Union of Christian Schools, is largely the fruit of Christian Reformed thinking and action. Outside of this denomination, free, parent-controlled Christian schools are still almost innovations or are regarded with positive disfavor. This fact indicates that this is the only area where thousands of Reformed people have for many decades been carrying forward a program of action on the basis of a well-thought-out conception of Christian education. This is not largely a movement from the top down, a basically hierarchical or even essentially ecclesiastical movement, but a movement of Christian believers and especially of Christian parents who have been ready to make great financial sacrifices in order to fulfill their obligation to Christ as Lord of all of life, and to insure for their children a thoroughly Christian education. Tn such a company of people of faith and action there is great actual and potential power for the development of Christian education at the highest levels as well as at the lower. We hold that no Calvinistic university movement can hope for much success unless it succeeds in gaining the enthusiastic support of a large segment of this company of Christian believers.
It might seem to follow that it would be a simple matter to realize the goal of a Christian University by building directly upon the foundation of Calvin College. Tn the American scene it appears that an undergraduate college, though not quite always insisted upon, is a practical necessity. II would then be possible, presumably, to utilize certain of the physical facilities of the College and, above all, to secure the services of members of the teaching staff for instruction on the postgraduate level. Nevertheless, there are solid reasons for regarding such an approach as Car from ideal and as actually beset with serious obstacles. To the consideration of certain of these obstacles and of other broader matters, I will address myself in a second article.