Church Control of Calvin College?

In the February 1957 issue of The Reformed Journal, Prof. John Bratt wrote an article under the above title however, without a question mark. That omission signifies the main difference between that article and the present one. In his writing he made a strong plea for the ecclesiastical control of Calvin College (as distinct from the seminary) by the Christian Reformed Church. It is valuable in that it again opens up for discussion this important subject before the 1957 synod convenes, and also in that it capably brings to the fore certain realistic problems that confront the advocates of a society-controlled college. His argumentation is chiefly two-fold: the argument of principle and the argument of practice.

It is not new to meet the reason of expediency: that has been the one main argument of the proponents of a church-controlled college in years gone by. But it is unusual to find such a firm denial of the principle that it is the duty of a society and not of the church to provide college education. Historically, with Dutch Calvinistic thinkers, it has usually been otherwise. In the Netherlands Abraham Kuyper pleaded for a university free from church control and was instrumental in establishing the Free University in 1880. The Cereformeerde Kerken have stood firm for the principle of society-controlled education, as is evidenced by the Acts of Synod of Dordrecht of 1893 (art. 235), the Acts of the Synod of Leeuwarden of 1920 (art. 121, Bijl. xxxiv), and the Dutch commentaries on Article 21 of the Church Order. Jansen sums up the church’s thinking when he writes that the fundamental principles of the calling of the church to schools are sufficiently settled. They are these: 1. that according to Reformed principles, the schools should not go out from the church, but from the parents. This rests on Scripture . . . . 2. That it is the calling of the churches to encourage parents to establish such schools [i.e., Christian ones, EHP] where they are not yet established” (J. Jansen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkorde der Gereformeerde Kerken, 1952, pp. 94–95).

Indicative also of the church’s convictions is the John Calvin Foundation, that was established in 1951 in Kampen to make it possible for students to attain their doctor’s degree in theology. The church already had a theological school, and the expedient measure would have been to have let the church grant the doctor’s degree. But it was felt that it was not proper for a church officially to sponsor such scientific work as is in the nature of the case involved in the attaining of a doctor’s degree, even when that study is in theology! Therefore, an independent organization free from church control, the John Calvin Foundation, was set up to sponsor this work officially, while it used the facilities of the seminary at Kampen. So strong were their convictions.


In the Christian Reformed Church, too, the principle of parental-and society-controlled schools has been the rule rather than the exception. When our church was fifty-seven years old, the Synod of 1914 said (art. 35 of the Acts of Synod): “The conviction is becoming more and more established in our church circles that it is a pure principle that the college proceed from a society and be cared for by it. For proof, see Acts of Synod 1894, art. 48; 1896, art. 114b; 1898, art. 76; 1900, art. 39, VII; 1908, art. 24, 37–52; 1910, act. 56; 1912, art. 36.” It was continually felt, however, that it was not advisable from the practical viewpoint to separate the college from the church. Ideally, it should be done; practically, however, there were objections. The editor of De Wachter in 1951 came to a similar conclusion when he wrote in his survey of this problem: “Telkens werd uitgesproken dat, wat het beginsel aangaat, het zuiver lopen zou als Calvin College aan een vereeniging werd overgedragen, maar tegelijkertijd werd ook gezegd dat, van uit een practisch oogpunt, de bezwaren als onoverkomelijk moesten worden geacht” (Jan. 23). And in the next issue (Jan. 30), he said, “WeI is het beginsel zuiver, maar we moeten rekening houden met het historisch gewordene.” Prof. Henry Van Til, in his survey of this matter in the December 1956 Torch and Trumpet, analyzes the synodical decisions in the same way when he writes: “First, it was repeatedly expressed that it was better on basis of principle to have a society-owned school than a church-owned school. . . . Thirdly, in every instance that the synods looked into this problem they came to the conclusion on the basis of practical considerations that it was not desirable to separate the college from the church” (p. 21).

Thus, although it is not new, it is not common to hear one assert: “Ecclesiastical control of Calvin College violates no Scriptural principle. On the contrary, I would maintain that it is in full accord with the principles of the Word of God” (The Reformed Journal, Feb., 1957, p. 17). For the practically unanimous voice of the Dutch Calvinistic tradition, whether in the Netherlands or in America, has been that “the principle is pure,” but circumstances allow for extenuations of it. When a voice is now raised to deny this principle, it seems wise that such a denial should not pass by without some observations.

The main point is simply this: What is the task of the church? Prof. Bratt writes that it is twofold: to preach and to teach. To prove his point he quotes Matthew 28:19–20, where Jesus says in his great commission: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you. . . .” He also cites II Corinthians 10:5, where Paul speaks of his “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” The author’s conclusion is that since “it is in full accord with the principles of the Word of God” for the church to teach, the Christian Reformed Church may operate Calvin College.

We believe that this is not a correct exegesis of these two passages, and that therefore his conclusion drawn from them is wrong. It seems to us that the author is on solid ground when he sets forth the twofold duty of the church as preaching and teaching. He might have buttressed his teaching argument with Paul’s declarations that “the bishop therefore must be . . . apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2) and “the Lord’s servant must . . . be … apt to teach” (II Tim. 2:24). But the question before us is not whether the church has the duty to teach or not. It most certainly has. Rather, the question is: What may the church teach? Do these Scriptural passages cited give a “duty” (as the author strongly puts it) to the church as an organization, as an institution, to teach all things, such as Coaching of Basketball, Electricity and Magnetism, Surveying, Money and Banking, Principles of Marketing, Geography of the Caribbean Area, and Cost Accounting, which are being taught at present by the church as an organization in Calvin College? This is a forcing of the text: eisegesis and not exegesis. Note that Jesus did not command his disciples to teach “all things,” but to teach “them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” This last clause “whatsoever I have commanded you” clearly restricts the content of the teaching to be done by the eleven disciples, or the church as an institution. Jesus did not spend his time teaching bis disciples carpentering, fishing, history, art, spelling, mathematics, and Aramaic in the light of Scripture. Rather, he taught his disciples such things as a deeper understanding of the Old Testament, the true interpretation of the Ten Commandments, the law of love, his own person and works, his goal in coming to earth, his return at the end of time, a deeper awareness of sin, how he could save them from the guilt and power of sin, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of the kingdom of God. To be sure, he gave principles in his teaching such as concern the kingdom, and these can be applied to carpentering, fishing, Aramaic, and even Coaching of Basketball, Principles of Marketing, Electricity and Magnetism, etc. But he never went into the actual application of these himself. Thus, when he commissioned his disCiples to teach converts to observe all things whatsoever he commanded them, he did not commission them to teach the actual working out of these principles, as is done in Calvin today, but to teach about the deeper interpretation of the Old Testament, the law of love, the person and natures of Christ, and even the Christian’s obligation to God in every realm of life because the kingdom of God embraces all of life. Hence, we believe that it is incorrect to appeal to Matthew 28:19–20 to support the theory that a church may operate a liberal arts college. On the contrary, the restriction that Christ places on the words “all things” indicates that the church is not to go into such work. The church must teach, but not all things.

We believe that neither will a careful examination of I Timothy 3:2 and II Timothy 2:24, which speak of the bishop being apt to teach, sustain the theory that the bishop is to teach all things, but rather only the Word of God. Concerning II Corinthians 10:5, which speaks of “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ,” it is difficult to find evidence that would indicate that this is the task of the church as an organization. The church invisible should do that, but not the church as an institution.

It is at this point of the relationship of the invisible chW’ch, or the kingdom of God, to the church as an organization that there seems to be confusion. Reformed theology has always maintained a careful distinction between the two. (See the fine and careful treatment of this by Prof. L. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, pp. 568 If.) There is, on the one hand, the kingdom of God that pervades all of life. On the other hand, there is the church as an organization, which is within the kingdom, but not identical with it. Certainly, the Christian must let the Word of God shine in all of his thinking and activity. Whatsoever he does must be done unto the glory of God. With the principles of the Word of God he must invade every realm that Calvin College is admirably attempting to do. We need Calvin College and its marvelous goals. But if we subsume it under the church, we are breaking down the fundamental distinction between the kingdom of God and the church as an organization. The church has the task of preaching and teaching the Christian’s duty in all of life. It points the way. It shows the Christian’s obligations. But it may not go further and become active in these kingdom spheres that are outside the ecclesiastical sphere. It may not become engaged in politics or labor or family problems, even though it must teach the church members that they are obliged to face these fields in the light of the Word of God. The church must teach the Christian that special revelation has implications for general revelation, and that general revelation must be studied in the light of special revelation; but it may not actually teach general revelation, even when it is interpreted in the light of Scripture. That is the duty of the member of the kingdom of God, but not as he is a member of the church.

That it is not the task of the church to enter in upon the formal, systematic education of a child, whether in a grade school, high school, or liberal arts college, is clear from Matthew 28:20, where, as we have already seen, the teaching commanded the church is restricted. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that, in accord with nature, Scripture places the primary responsibility for the education of the child upon the parents and not upon the church. The Bible does not command the Old Testament church or the elders of the New Testament church to rear up the children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, but it repeatedly warns the parents that it is their duty. The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1955 set this principle forth at some length and gave many Biblical proofs for this position (Acts of Synod, pp. 193 II.). Similarly, Article 21 of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church has consistently been interpreted as meaning that . . . consistories shall diligently encourage the members of their churches to establish and maintain good Christian schools,” as the proposed revision has so excellently summed it up. It is clear that the Church Order does not envisage the task of the church as an organization to establish schools, but it points out to parents their duties and encourages them as members of the kingdom of God, and not as members of the church, to do this. Likewise, the two hundred Christian schools of the National Union have manifested their belief that it is the parents’ duty to educate the child and not the church’s by the fact that they have not taken the course of expediency—following the easy road of raising finances by being under the church—but have remained free from church control.

In conclusion, it seems possible to assert that at times, in unusual circumstances, in emergencies, when parents, for example, have failed in their duties, it is permissible for the church to establish and maintain educational institutions, whether they be grade schools or universities. Practical considerations may allow for an extenuation of the principle. But one is on very tenuous ground when he asserts that “ecclesiastical control of Calvin College violates no Scriptural principle.” There are great practical difficulties involved. Let us be realistic in this. But that should never obscure the general Biblical principle that it is not the task of the church to run a liberal arts college. The church must teach its members that it is their duty to do it, as Article 21 of the Church Order demands. but it must not normally do what is the task of the parents. In the case of emergency, as has happened in many Christian grade schools, the Christian Reformed Church may support Calvin College financially, as long as this is necessary. But let us not now deny the principle that has been held pure for all these years. Rather, let us set the ideal before us, striving as much as is within us to attain it.