A Christian Reformed University?


Each year Synod spends considerable time on educational matters pertaining to the College of the Church. Most of the decisions arc considered routine and recommendations are accepted without serious deliberation. This and next year Synod may have to make fundamental decisions regarding the acceptance of non-Christian Reformed students and faculty at Calvin, the proposal for a graduate school and, indirectly, the issue of church control. The long-awaited Graduate Studies Committee recommendations may finally be brought to Synod for action. Unfortunately, this writer was not successful in his attempt to obtain a copy of their report from the Secretary of the Board of Trustees, and could, therefore, only use those ideas which have become public indirectly through various articles. With respect to the issue of a Christian university, the editor of Calvinist Contact, Mr. D. F’ahrenhorst, recently wrote:

We could distantiate from the problem, awaiting the further development, were it not that the matter is coming to a head. It seems to us that the reformed community is forced to take a stand, to make a decision. We dare say also that whatever decision will be made, it will leave the people with an unsatisfied feeling as to whether they have done the right thing. Obviously the foundation of a university is something that requires all our energy and financial resources, if that is enough. It is clear as daylight that two similar institutions are beyond the possibility of the reformed community.1

However, the problem is much broader than the above statement. This article examines a few of the relevant issues in the light of Calvin’s philosophy of Christian liberal arts education.

Distinctive Christian Education?

A large segment of the Christian Reformed Church is worried that their College is losing its distinctiveness and wonder if their financial sacrifice is worthwhile. Behind this legitimate concern lies a hidden assumption which goes to the central issue. The problem was well-stated many years ago by the late Professor L. Berkhof, when he said: “The question was once asked, ‘Is Calvin College losing its distinctiveness?’ To this query someone replied that there was a prior question, the question, namely, whether the College has ever been distinctive.”2 The answer to the question is both “Yes” and “No.”

The school was conceived to be a Christian liberal arts college. This goal stated long ago has recently been updated in the curriculum Study Report entitled Christian Liberal Arts Education.3 The ideal education envisioned is a philosophy of liberal arts within the context of a Christian Reformed theology. Theology is understood to be at the center, providing possible integration. The Chairman of the Curriculum Committee, Dr. N. Wolterstorff, at the beginning of the study wrote: “…Christian theology will always occupy the central place in the curriculum of a Christian college.”4 It is not without significance that a professor of theology represented the college faculty-at-large on the above committee. In a series of articles in the spring and summer of 1961, several faculty members wrote on “Integrated Education at Calvin College,” showing how they integrate their reformed theology in their respective disciplines. By far the best article was written by Dr. John Vandenberg, then professor of Economics and an ex officio member of the Curriculum Committee. He wrote:

…we seek to develop economic understanding in the context of the Reformed faith and with the hope that it will be a means of implementing and making faith relevant. I take this to mean that the positions taken over against matters economic should not be inconsistent with the doctrines of the Reformed faith. Positively, this means that in the areas of judgment and attitudes in economics one’s position is fashioned by his commitment to the Reformed faith.5

To the Reformed faith inherited from the Reformation the authors of the Curriculum Report have added the humanistic faith inherent in the liberal arts tradition: disciplinary, classical, or pragmatic. Within this concept of Christian liberal arts education lies a “hidden” tension between “two massive, living, jealous” religious traditions, which legitimatizes and makes possible, in principle and practice, secular education in a reformed context.6 What the famous historian R. H. Gabriel has written about Yale is equally applicable to Calvin College in this context. He said:

The long record of religion and learning at Yale is the story of the unfolding of two distinct yet related credos. The chapel [and theology] has taught faith in God. A humanistic faith has supported and inspired the protagonists of the liberal arts—the faith that the cultivation of the disciplines in that area of learning enlarges and enriches the life of the individual.7

Calvin strives to be a Christian liberal arts college. However, this ideal cuts off at its very roots the possibility for truly integrated Christian education, because the Christian (Reformed) faith can never be integrated with the humanistic faith embodied in the concept liberal arts. Therefore. the education at Calvin is identical to that of hundreds of other Church colleges committed to a liberal arts education, such as Bob Jones University,8 except that its “Christian” emphasis is a Reformed theology rather than some other theology.

However, a few institutions such as Dordt and Trinity (although accepting the common name of Christian liberal arts college) have at least in principle broken with the synthesis between “Christian” and “liberal arts.” These institutions can be free from church control became theology is not the heart of their curriculum, and they have accepted Kuyper’s idea of Christian philosophy and science as well as his concept of sphere sovereignty.

In all fairness it must be added that Calvin does give an excellent liberal arts education and most faculty members are fine Christians. Calvin College is an excellent liberal arts institution and a theologically Reformed community, but is it an integrated Christian academic center of higher learning and research?

Precisely because Calvin’s distinctiveness is primarily in its Reformed theology, the issue of church control is crucial. Without (required) Reformed Bible courses, chapel, and church affiliation, the college would rapidly lose its distinctiveness. Another question could be asked: Can church control keep the school’s theology “pure” or will the instruction to our youth gradually change the theology of the church?

Non-Christian Reformed Students and Faculty?

According to The Grand Rapids Press ( February 19, 1970) the Faculty recently recommended that the College actively recruit non-Christian Reformed students. The Board of Trustees will act upon it during its May meeting. “Certain terminology may have to be changed, but the Administration seems confident that the policy will be approved.” If so, Synod could be asked to approve the new direction. This step is in itself commendable.

The reason advanced for this new direction is that Calvin claims to have a different approach to education. But as shown above, Calvin’s only distinctiveness is its Reformed theology. Why should evangelical students want to come, when they can receive a similar liberal arts training within the context of their own theological tradition elsewhere? Perhaps active recruitment is related to a declining enrollment. This is emphatically denied by the Administration. There is said to be no cause and effect, only an unfortunate coincidence. Others claim that there is no new policy at all; that Calvin has had an open admissions policy for some time. What is new may be none other than the policy of active recruitment, because students do not come automatically. If so, why then involve the Board at all?

The “new policy” does coincide. however, with the desire to have permanent non-Christian Reformed faculty members also.9 Again, the same reasons are advanced; it is not so much that Calvin needs them, hut they can benefit from Calvin’s “distinctiveness.” However, Calvin by its definition radically reduces the possibility for distinctive Christian scholarship.

Given the established understanding of Christian liberal arts education and the Christian Reformed Church’s role in higher education, the active recruitment of non-Christian Reformcd students and/or faculty. threatens to open the flood-gates of Calvin’s theological and ecclesiastical distinctiveness. Add to this, the desire for a graduate school under non-Christian Reformed control, and one realizes that these developments urgently require searching analysis.

A Calvin Graduate School:

The Curriculum and Graduate Studies Committees, although separate, are intimately related, organically and philosophically. The chairman of the former was secretary of the latter Committee. The first Committee was concerned about the ideal of a Christian liberal arts education, “not a certain sort of college.” It was the mandate for the Graduate Studies Committee to concern itself with the sort of college Calvin should develop into. The choice was whether to remain an undergraduate college or to add a graduate school. The issue is confused when people write as if Calvin is developing into a university. Calvin has offered undergraduate university training throughout its history.

The “university ideal” has a long history, but the movement itself was dead until the Association for Reformed Scientific Studies in Canada was organized to establish an Institute for graduate university instruction in 1956. That same year the Calvin Board of Trustees quickly appointed a committee, but not much came of it. Then in 1962 the Board appointed the present Graduate Studies Committee. Its mandate is basically the same as the ideal written about during the semi-centennial celebration. “The second ideal toward which Calvin College should resolutely set its face is its expansion into a full-fledged university.”10 Dr. Volbeda gives both theoretical and practical reasons, reasons which are very similar to the arguments put forth by the present Committee. There is, however, one fundamental difference. While Dr. Volbeda and others looked upon the university ideal as a “venture of faith,” the proposed graduate school is better described as a venture of expediency. The proposed extension of Calvin College is a quest for survival. Hofstra College was one of the first institutions to add a graduate school to the undergraduate college. Commenting on this development, Jacques Barzun in his commencement address at Hofstra, celebrating its first year as a university said:

…the nature of that change, one does not quite know what to call it; one does not want to say the “transformation” of Hofstra College into Hofstra University,…“elevation,”….“graduation” of the college—that metaphor is obviously the worst of all. Let us then simply say that Hofstra, following the natural course of things in American higher education,…11

Recently, the historian, H. S. Commager, said that onc way for a college “to become less parochial is to grow in size and in scope until it ceases to be a college and becomes a university: That is what is happening throughout the country.”12

Calvin seeks to remain a Christian awl a contemporary American college. Not revival or faith, but survival and practical necessity seem to be the main concern of the Committee. This is evident from the initial program. Most urgent is said to be the education program. “Legislation pending in Michigan would make mandatory thirty hours of shldy beyond the A.B. degree for all persons who want a permanent teaching certificate.”13 A second step would be a “school of religion,” proposed as a joint endeavor of the Seminary and the Psychological Institute. The advanced studies would be in the areas of pastoral psychology, counseling, and chaplaincies. The program is necessary for the Seminary to offer the Th. degree and be recognized by the American Association of Theological Seminaries. A proposed “advanced studies institute” is envisioned as “the final step towards a union of the arts and sciences.”

One reason for the long delay of the Graduate Study Committee Report is the possible conflict of interest between the Seminary faculty and the Committee members. The Committee may have envisioned the seminary to become part of the theology department within the “university,” while the Seminary faculty would want to maintain their autonomy. This is an old issue and goes back to the early history of the College and Seminary. Some saw the theological school as the highest school within the university idea, and others wanted an independent seminary. The relation between the two is confusing and must be clarified before basic decisions arc made. There appears to be no valid reason why a Th.M. degree should not be offered instead of the B.D., regardless of the status of the seminary.

Church Control:

Another reason for the possible delay is the matter of church control over the school, undergraduate and graduate level. It is a controversial issue with a long history in the church. The most recent decisions have been made by the Synods of 1957 and 1967. The Committee tries to circumvent the issue by ignoring the issue at the undergraduate level and concentrating on a case for a free graduate school. After societal control for graduate studies is obtained, the issue of church control over undergraduate studies can be raised again. This is a strategic decision, but amounts to double-talk and confuses the problem. In an interview, for example, the President of the College was asked: “What are the issues involved in maintaining a direct church relationship on the graduate level in comparison to the college level?” Dr. W. Spoelhof replied:

There are two approaches to the matter of maintenance and support by a denomination and its relation to graduate study. One is the approach that we hear particularly from our Canadian brethren: that any kind of education is an area which should operate independent of the church. Owing to sphere sovereignty, it is not the duty of the church to maintain and control an educational establishment. This would particularly apply to a graduate school…it is at least practically appropriate for the maintenance of a baccalaureate program because of the close connection between Christian education and the preparation for positions in the church. But when it comes to the highly specialized bits of research and matters of training for the professions, they would resist church control…

The official stand of the Christian Reformed Church is that a graduate school would eventually be separate from the church.

Secondly, there are others who would want to separate the college or university from the church because they believe that this would create a greater amount of academic freedom and liberty for both the teachers and the students.14

Where can one begin and end with this rather confusing statement? First of all, to the best knowledge of several trustees and ministers, the Church has taken no official stand for a free graduate school.

Greater academic freedom is not a second reason for separation of church and college. Academic freedom and authority is an essential element within sphere sovereignty. It is true that many faculty members are more motivated by a liberal version of academic freedom than a reformed principle of sphere sovereignty. But practically speaking, they should know that, on the whole, ecclesiastical control has served them well. In addition, the principle of sphere sovereignty is just as applicable to the undergraduate level or any level of education. With respect to the question of a free graduate school, it is said that the Committee took special notice of A. Kuyper’s concept of a “university controlled neither by state nor by church.” One would wish the Committee had taken special note of Kuyper’s view of Christian scholarship, science and philosophy.

Principal reasons have been advances for separation and pragmatic reasons have been advanced against separation of church and college, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. The Committee walks a tight rope because it wants to have the best of two possible worlds: secure financial support from the constituency without strings attached (church control).

There may he a way out of this dilemma. There is a third and most pressing reason for separation of church and school. Church colleges like Calvin are receiving large federal grants, but crucial court cases involving church collezes are pending in Maryland and Connecticut. In the fear that the Supreme Court may rule: “no federal funds for church-controlled schools,” several colleges, Catholic and Protestant, have already disassociated themselves from the churches. Others are waiting to make the step depending upon the Supreme Court ruling. “The ‘disestablishing’ of the Church institution would then eliminate any possible religious bar to state or federal funds…Ignoring it [problem of church control] will mean an option for disaster by default.”15

Church control of Calvin may, therefore, be a financial asset or liability. It is an asset if no federal funds are forthcoming. It is a liability, if the condition for government grants is separation of church and college. Apart from the issue of government aid and disassociation, the question will continue to be pressed within the Christian Reformed community. As soon as the Development and Centennial Campaign Committees have collected their millions and the united Calvin schools are financially stable the need for church control (and finances) over the schools is no longer needed.

But the plea for separation is a two-way street: the College may want separation from the Church, but the church may also want separation from the College. The controversy is not between the Canadian versus the American ministers, but between the liberal and conservative wing within the Christian Reformed Church. In the ‘50’s the “liberals” wanted separation from the church, the “conservatives” wanted to continue church control. Dissatisfied now with the direction of Calvin as a Christian college, the “conservatives” want separation and the “liberals” want to hold on for a few more years and finances.

There is a hidden tension. On the one hand, Reformed theology is harmonized with a particular science. On the other hand, theology itself is considered first and highest among the liberal arts. Consequently, there is also this liberal spirit operative within reformed theology, which is often passed on to students in the other sciences by the “lay-theologian” teachers. It is not surprising, therefore, that historically church colleges were responsible for the liberalization of the protestant churches. A liberal character is given to the church by virtue of its attachment to its college. Has…

…the church brought forth a monster that would devour its parent?…But college constituencies had to be kept reassured that there was no conflict and that all was well. This was the task of the presidents, in their public statements…We want faith and reason and science, they said, for we are educating the whole man. And that is so simple that it scarcely needs saying, but could be assumed as self-evident. Yet it must be said, for the peace of mind of students, professors, parents and posterity.16

However, the issue of church control over the College is more than an issue over finances. It goes deeper than judicial control by the church over higher education. It is deeper than the running and maintaining of academic institutions by Trustees who are churchmen. They are not officers of “another Christian organization.” In principle it is their church organization. In practice, trustees act as trouble shooters for the Administration. This is often evident from their manner at c1assis, and the Board’s propaganda-page-report published biennially in the ecclesiastical journals, but void of any significant information. They have to safeguard the distinctiveness of the college. They have to maintain the ecclesiastical and theological purity of doctrine of Christian liberal arts education. Given the central position theology has in Calvin’s Christian liberal arts education, the trustees are bound to continue to be a Board of ecclesiastical educators. President Spoelhof understands well the distinctiveness the Church has given the College. In answer to the question: “What are the advantages of remaining a church-related college?” he said:

…a character is given to the college -a specific and unique character—by virtue of our attachment with the church. And Calvin’s character is also indicated in the denomination. Calvin College’s academic program is oriented around philosophical and theological concepts…which are part of our Reformed and Christian commitment. Therefore, the orientation of all the courses is theological and philosophical. This is the strength of Calvin’s liberal arts program. This liberal arts program is cast into this kind of matrix. Philosophy and theology are big and solid subjects, and undergird the whole curriculum at Calvin. This, I think, has been the result of close union with the church. This is the kind of thinking the church has brought about in its college.17

The distinctive character of “Our School” is undermined if the Church approves a policy of active recruitment of more non-reformed students and faculty, and gives the go-ahead to a graduate school free from church control, but at the same time an integral part of the undergraduate Church school. The next logical step would be a free separation of the latter also. As long as the basic philosophy of Christian education at Calvin remains the same, the Church has the duty to protect its investments by controlling the quality and content of the Reformed theology used by professors in their courses. Without church control, the school may become just another liberal university.

To separate or not to separate: this is the awesome dilemma in which the Church finds itself. It is in the minds and hearts of many Christian Reformed people. Sooner or later, their delegates to Synod will have to make a decision. Whatever decision will be made, it will leave many people with the uncertain feeling whether or not they judged wisely.

Fortunately, there are other Christian institutions (undergraduate and graduate) which have been more successful in coming to grips with the ideal of Christian scholarship. Thus, the constituency does not have to choose between two seemingly similar graduate schools, because the various institutions embody a radically different philosophy of education.

The quota system must now also be re-examined as part of the total issue. At present there is great inequality (or our schools. Our leaders profess to be committed to the principles of CEF yet fail to apply them to their own institutions. Regardless of whether or not the church controls Calvin College and/or University, the other institutions of higher education (Trinity, Dordt, AACS Institute) should receive a still greater percentage of the quota, and share in other finances and development drives. Naturally, the seminary should continue to receive full support as long as church-controlled. In education we need diversity because the constituency has developed a diversity of philosophies of education. Let each institution develop its particular philosophy of education, divide the support according to attendance, and allow students the full and equal freedom to attend the school of their choice. The funds could be distributed by a financial board.


Calvin’s dilemma is not between a pre-professional versus professional training, not between college or university education. Calvin’s ultimate problem is of two spirits at work within the same institution: the spirit of antithesis and synthesis. Calvin has a distinctive future as a Christian university only if the “spirit of ’76” is not the spirit of synthesis, but antithesis. Calvin does not lack a sense of cultural mandate. It is betwixt two ideals of cultural responsibility: Scriptural and humanist, the spirit of Christ and the “liberating” arts. Calvin is not directionless, but wants to change in two opposite directions. It has within its walls the seeds of its own destruction and construction. The school is going through its second great transformation without an inner reformation of Christian education. Its unfinished business is not only a graduate school. Its greatest task ahead is to develop into a full-fledged Christian university.

Mr. Philip C. Bom, a graduate of Calvin College, is assistant professor of political science at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

1. D. Fahrenhorst, “Unity Needed,” Calvinist Contact, January 8, 1970. Italics added.

2. L. Berkhof, “Our School’s Reason for Existence and the Preservation Thereof,” Semi-Centennial Volume (Grand Rapids, 1926) p. 137.

3. See my extensive review of the Report, “The Curriculum of a Christian Liberal Arts College,” TORCH AND TRUMPET, May-June, 1967, pp. 15–20. The Report is now available in book form (Eerdmans, 1970).

4. N. Wolterstorff, “The Idea of a Christian College,” Reformed Journal, Sept. 1962, p. 20.

5. J. Vandenberg, “The Reformed Faith, The Christian Spirit, and Economics,” Calvinalia, Oct. 1962, p. 16.

6. See L. DeKoster, “The Liberal Arts in Christian Context,” The Reformed Journal, Sept., 1962, pp. 12–13.

7. R. H. Bagriel, Religion and Learning at Yale. New Haven: Yale University Press (1958), p. viii.

8. L. L. King, “Bob Jones University: The Buckle on the Bible Belt,” Harper’s, June 1966, pp. 51–58. This church school is also committed to Christian liberal arts education.

9. See R. J. Mouw, “Non-Christian Reformed Faculty at Calvin,” Dialogue, Jan. 1970, pp. 2–3 and editorial in student paper, Chimes, Feb. 13, 1970.

10. S. Volbeda, “Ideals for the School,” Semi-Centennial Volume, p. 257.

11. J. Banun, “College to University – And After,” The American Scholar, Spring, 1964, p. 212.

12. H. S. Commager, “Has the Small College a Future?”, Saturday Review, Feb. 21, 1970, pp. 89–90.

13. “Graduate Studies Committee reveals Plans for Calvin University Study,” Chimes, Oct. 1, 1965, p. 1.

14. “An Interview with President Spoelhof,” Chimes, Jan. 12, 1008, p. 6.

15. L. Swidler, “Catholic Colleges,” Commonweal, Jan. 29, 1005, p. 562.

16. Schmidt, The Liberal Arts College. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957, pp. 41–42.

17. “An Interview with President Spoelhof,” Chimes, Jan. 12, 1968, p. 6.