Does our Seminary Need a President?

In these days of the welfare state we are all familiar with the road that leads to bureaucracy. The government sets up a bureau in a certain area of service, seemingly rather innocent at first, but it soon mushrooms into something very important, that clings to the body politic, like the barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship. In some such way I see the development of the office of the presidency of our Seminary. It is growing into something big, a full-time “job” for which the church will perhaps pay the highest salary in the denomination. That the office is expanding in this fashion may be assumed, seeing that the Board of Trustees has announced that we must get a new appointee for the chair of Church History.

In the December issue of this paper I have written on this subject and indicated that, in my opinion, the office should be abolished. Several people asked me if this subject could not be explored a little further. I gladly accede to this request. It was suggested that the matter is too important just at this time to dispose of it in a very brief article. I say advisedly: just at this time. We are at the crossroads with this office. Now that the incumbent is up for appointment for an indefinite tenure, obviously one must speak now or forever hold his peace. Let’s say it once more, and that emphatically, that we are concerned with the office, not with the man who now or in the future may hold it.




How did this office originate? The record states that Prof. Berkhof became president in 1931. In the report to the Synod of 1932 we read that at the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees the Executive Committee recommended that the rector, instead of serving but one year, as in the past, be appointed for four years and be eligible for re-appointment. The Faculty expressed itself favorably and it was so decided. The reasons advanced were that the Seminary would have a more permanent head, that this would do away with the principle of rotation, and that the one so elected would be designated “Seminary President” (Cf. Acts, 1932, pp. 207, 8). Berkhof was elected.

However, an element to be considered is that this was occasioned by the 25th anniversary of Berkhof’s professorship. I have it on the authority of R. B. Kuiper, who was present during all these proceedings, that the office was bom out of the desire to confer a special honor upon Berkhof. That this is most plausible is attested by the concluding paragraph. “Professor L. Berkhof was elected to this position, and he was inducted into office on the 9th of September, the date on which he commemorated his 25th anniversary as professor of our institution” (Acts 1932, p. 208). It is evident that the “office” was not born out of necessity; it was largely honoris causa. In fact it was not considered a special office at all. Berkhof continued his teaching as before. We read in the Acts of 1936, p. 167, “In addition to the work connected with this office, Prof. Berkhof has continued to occupy his chair in the department of dogmatic theology.” And no one dreamed that a new office was being created which would one day command a top salary, and was destined to become a controversial subject in the Christian Reformed Church.

When the time came for Berkhof’s emeritation, a successor had· to be appointed. Not to do so could be construed as a reflection on Berkhof’s honorable and unblemished record. Volbeda was the next president. But I have not been able to discover any record of the considerations that led to this choice. Whether his qualifications were discussed at all seems doubtful to me. Seniority seemed to require that Volbeda should be the next president. However this may be, he carried on in the Berkhof tradition. He too continued his work in the classroom as heretofore. Again, no one was conscious of the presidency as a new and separate office. Also his term of service came to an end. And is it not significant that in the Necrology of our Yearbook the fact that Berkhof and Volbeda served as president of the Seminary is not even mentioned? It was largely honoris causa.

But then things began to happen—no doubt under the influence of certain difficulties that had developed. R. B. Kuiper was appointed president in 1952. That was a reversal of policy. Formerly we had professors who became president; then we appointed a president who also became professor. What had been secondary became primary. Then we began to accentuate the office of president. Someone conceived of the idea that the President should have full executive powers and have much more authority. Let me hasten to say that this was not Kuiper’s ambition. To his credit it must be stated that though he was president he was thoroughly opposed to the idea. On the Boor of the Synod of 1953 and subsequent synods he advised strongly against it. And although the Synod did not accept his advice in its entirety, he succeeded in trimming the original proposals for that authority considerably. His idea was that our Seminary should remain a faculty-controlled school.

Of course, for a new office a set of rules had to be drawn up. That was far from simple. We quote:

“The Board of Trustees reports that at its May meeting action was taken on the matter of a set of rules governing the office of the president of the Seminary” (Acts 1952, Art. 193, p. 119).

That the task was not easy is attested by the fact that this set of rules was bandied about from pillar to post for four years. Finally the new rules were proposed to the Synod of 1955 and were adopted. (See Agenda, 1955, pp. 194–197, and Acts, 1955, p. 48, II, B. 2.) These rules now circumscribe the qualifications and duties for the high office. As to the qualifications, let us see what kind of a man this president must be. We quote:

“The president of the Seminary shall be a man of Reformed persuasion, possessing a broad understanding of and heartily committed to the Reformed faith and life. He shall be of recognized theological stature, academically well prepared, Christian in character, endowed with wisdom, gifted with administrative ability, and able to lead.”

What a man! As a delegate to that Synod this writer well remembers the remarks of a brother that the man to measure up to these qualifications had yet to be born; indeed, he doubted if he ever would be born.

As to his duties these may be summarized in three words: peacemaker, troubleshooter, and counselor. Counselor! Ah, that is the intriguing word in academic circles today. We need counselors in our high schools, counselors in our colleges, counselors in our seminaries. It would almost seem that soon a student must have a professional psychologist on his left and a psychiatrist on his right to develop into a normal human being. Look:

“It shall be the duty of the president to serve as counselor to the students. He shall have the authority to summon students for counseling, and in case of reasonable surmise of difficulty shall be expected to do so” (Agenda, 1955, p. 196).

But isn’t that the privilege and duty of every professor? And is not the professor who has this student in his class every day, judges the quality of his work, observes his aptitudes and attitudes, in a far better position to counsel him than a president who sits in an office and may have only casual contacts with him? I refuse to believe that we have seminary professors who, observing a student in difficulty, would not sit down with him, and in a spirit of love and Christian concern have a heart to heart talk with him. Have we reached the stage that our seminary professors must act like teachers in the grades who send naughty boys to the principal’s office? Seminarians are mature men, practically all are family men. If all the professors perform their duty there will be little necessity for a president to engage in counseling to such an extent that it would encroach upon his time for special study and classroom teaching.


When this Seminary presidency was elevated to an office, invested with a large measure of authority, few realized that it could become one of the most disputable subjects in our denomination. Whoever proposed this authority could have been reminded of the adage: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Let’s not imagine this does not apply to the church. Suppose someone is under consideration as a candidate for a professorship in the Seminary. He has the training and qualifications and is regarded by many as the logical choice. But it is known that he does not see eye to eye with the president on certain important issues. Do you think it likely that he will ever receive that appointment? He is considered controversial, does not fit in with the administration! Is it entirely accidental that right now the chair in Old Testament is vacant when we knew five years ago that we would need a successor to the present incumbent? And that we are caught totally unprepared and have to resort to lectors?

I submit, now is the time to subject this office to serious review. Let a committee of the Board with a committee of the Faculty study the question how this work of administration can be divided among the Faculty, or initiate rotating rectorships. Moreover, is it wise to take a man who holds a doctorate and has been teaching his special branch of theology for ten years, who should be just coming into his own, and now remove him for “administration” and counseling, and again groom a successor—one whom the church may have to finance through another year or more of post-graduate work? Is it not time we also consult our sense of stewardship? Any commercial concern that would use its manpower in this way would soon be bankrupt. Or is the word of our Savior applicable here that the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light?

We could also take our lesson from Westminster. Dr. Machen, c.s. had witnessed how, to a great extent through the influence of its new president, Dr. Stevenson, Princeton was sent down the drain. And Westminster said: No president who speaks for this new Seminary! Rather: a chairman who speaks for the Faculty and a Faculty that speaks for the Seminary. That is as it should be. And what began among us as a rather innocent honoris causa is in the process of mushrooming into the most important, the most influential, the most expensive, and what could become the most controversial office in the denomination. Do we really need it?