More on “Father Groppi at Calvin College”

In its August 1970 issue TORCH AND TRUMPET reprinted an article from THE STANDARD BEARER on “Father Groppi at Calvin College.” Following is a letter of response by three members of Calvin College faculty together with a reply by the writer of the article, Rev. Gise Van Baren.

Dear Rev. Van Baren:

Your recent article on “Father Groppi at Calvin College” has been brought to our attention, and since we were the three Calvin professors who were on stage with Father Groppi we feel that some explanation on our part is in order. We hope that you will be so kind as to print this reply in The Standard Bearer. [A copy of this reply was sent by the professors to TORCH AND TRUMPET.]

We are grateful for your expressions of concern for Calvin College and for the integrity of the Reformed faith which is being taught there. We share your concern lest the historic Reformed faith as contained in the Scriptures and summarized in the confessions of the Reformation be diluted or compromised. We can understand very well also how after hearing Father Groppi’s address at Calvin you might be alarmed and saddened. If the only thing that one heard from Calvin College were what Father Groppi said, it would be easy to conclude that the college had forsaken the Reformed faith and that it no longer had anything to set it apart as the distinctive “college of the Christian Reformed Church.”

Father Groppi did not speak for Calvin College and his appearance at Calvin by no means implied the college’s endorsement of anything he might have said. He appeared as part of our lecture program which is designed to allow the college community to hear first hand the spokesmen for views which may differ from the views of the college and its faculty. That we at Calvin do not endorse the positions of those who may lecture in this series should be clear from the fact that such guest lecturers have represented views that are contradictory and irreconcilable with each other. This past year, for example, the two lecturers we heard were Russell Kirk, the prominent spokesman for conservatism on social issues, and Father Groppi who is very liberal on the same issues. Tn a similar program this year we had a panel of NBC newsmen, which in all probability included some agnostics. It is simply inconceivable that the college could be endorsing all the contradictory views of the speakers whom we may bring to our campus. Furthermore, this college and its faculty members in fact disagree fundamentally with the positions represented by any such speakers who are not Reformed Christians. We do feel, nevertheless, that it is proper for an educational institution to present opportunities to hear as well as to study positions which may differ from those which we present in our own classes.

Nonetheless, we can understand how a guest coming to hear some one of these lectures might misconstrue our intentions and assume that we were endorsing something that we were not. We in the college community have discussed this problem at great length over the past years, and in fact we were particularly concerned over the appearance of Father Groppi, which we feared might well lead to these sorts of misunderstandings. We had hoped, however, that by having Calvin professors on the stage we would be able to open up a discussion with him that would clarify our differences. In this, however, we must confess that we did not succeed, and we can only ask that you will try to understand our explanation of why.

Instead of a lecture, Father Groppi delivered an impassioned exhortation. As you saw, he is a master at arousing an audience’s sympathies, and it was clear to all of us on stage that any attempt at serious debate afterward would be an anti-climax in which we woukl come alit the losers. It would have been somewhat analogous to attempting to debate Reformed theology with Billy Graham as he was giving his altar call. Moreover, Groppi was speaking on the most emotionally charred issue of the day, and much of what he said concerning injustices and exploitations of blacks and the need for justice and an end to such exploitations was unquestionably laudable. We, of course, differed with him concerning many of the tactics and moral positions which he endorsed, and in our own dealings with these problems have insisted on the crucial importance of the redemptive work of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. We were faced however with a very difficult situation, and this became evident in our questions. Because Groppi had defined his subject in such a way that any opposition to his methods of dealing with exploitation and injustice would automatically be interpreted by him as a racist endorsement of such exploitation and injustice, it seemed best to each of us to emphasize first of all that we did not disagree with him as to the urgency of such problems and to ask questions that might help clarify what he was trying to say in his many controversial suggestions as to the solutions to these problems. Even so, Croppi, who was much more disposed to exhort than to discuss, was clearly impatient with our questions (he cut off one questioner and he also suggested that after each of us had spoken only once we hear from those on the floor). Under such circumstances none of us felt talented enough to raise all the issues of our fundamental differences in the brief time remaining without creating serious misunderstandings. The result was, as your account of what we said underscored, that our true intentions as well as our own positions on the basic issues were not made entirely clear. For this we are truly sorry. We must add also the observation that anyone making impromptu remarks (as even President Nixon recently found out) is liable to choose words which arc not the best. The reference to “the best sermon” that was made is a case of such ill-chosen words which we regret and would like to retract.

Again, we can understand how, coming in from the outside and seeing only this from us without the total context of what we ourselves say, write, and teach in our classes, you could plausibly have come to the conclusion that we are compromising the faith. Tn that context, however, of the entire work of the college and of our own work we do not feel that we were compromising. No student at Calvin College who knows us or has heard what the three of us teach in our courses, or who has studied with our colleagues at Calvin, could possibly maintain that we endorsed all of the tactics and moral judgments which Father Groppi advocated. Very few of our students, we feel sure, would have any difficulty in distinguishing between our points of agreement with Groppi and the paints of our basic disagreement. Moreover, Father Groppi’s appearance, as all such guest lectures where we hear views differing from our own, has provided us with continuing occasions which we have been using to discuss the Reformed view on precisely these vital issues and distinctions with our classes.

We sincerely hope that you will attempt to understand this episode in its entire context, and we apologize for any misunderstandings which it has caused. We would like to be able to continue to keep our lecture series open to persons in the community such as yourself who are interested as we are in hearing how those who differ from us express their views, and we hope to find a way to help avoid such misunderstandings among our friends in the future. We sincerely hope also that you will continue in your concern for Calvin College in the warmth or Christian admonition and fellowship. Each of us would be glad to talk personally with you or any others further about this matter at any time.

Sincerely yours,



Dear Professors,

I thank you for the courteous and concerned answer you give to the “Father Groppi” article which appeared in the Standard Bearer of June 1, 1970, and which was reproduced and distributed by the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen in their bulletin, and reprinted in the TORCH AND TRUMPET.

I am happy to hear that you do renounce the “tactics and moral judgments which Father Groppi advocated.” Any Reformed Christian could do no less. As you suggest, it surely was not evident that you disagreed with Groppi that evening he spoke at Calvin. Your reference that night to Groppi’s speech as “one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard” and your favorable comparison of Groppi with the Old Testament prophets, as well as the opening prayer which asked God’s blessing upon that man—this suggested whole-hearted approval In fact, I did not at all have the impression that your “own positions on the basic issues were not made entirely clear” (italics mine). On the contrary, I thought (and still do) that you expressed yourselves very clearly—and therefore I am pleased that you now repudiate much of that position through your letter.

I am sorry, however, that you suggest that a judgment of that one evening ought to be made in the “total context of what (you) say, write, and teach in (your) classes.{ If I too may use an analogy, I would think that your reasoning sounds much like the robber, caught in the act, who would plead for his freedom and even claim innocence in light of the context of a good religious and family life. It seems to me that anyone acquainted with the Reformed position you maintain is yours in the classroom, would have been doubly appalled by your stance that evening in which Groppi spoke.

I do question also your statement that “very few of our students…would have any difficulty in distinguishing between our points of agreement with Groppi and the points of our basic disagreement.” I could wish that were true. But I can only form a judgment of that evening on the basis of the continual applause following even the most unscriptural suggestions and of the standing ovation by the largely student audience at the conclusion of the speech. It was my opinion then, and your letter does not change my conviction, that either most of these students could discern no basic disagreement between yourselves and Groppi, or, if they discerned any basic disagreement, that they were ready to support Groppi rather than any position you maintained in your classroom. In either case, the situation would be very serious, and reason for concern.

I want also to express appreciation for your invitation to continue expressions of concern for Calvin College “in the warmth of Christian admonition and fellowship.” I would like to respond to that invitation.

In the first place, I would like to address myself to you. You, in your letter, express certain fears which you had that evening—fears of coming out of any debate as “losers,” fears of being labeled “racists,” fears of “creating serious misunderstandings.” I suppose I can understand some of these fears—but they are sinful fears, are they not? If one gives answer from the infallible Word of God showing that obedience to governmental authority is required by God, or that the commandments of God are always binding and to be obeyed -then it matters not if Groppi calls you “racist.” It is not his judgment which must be of concern to you, but the judgment of God in his Word. And who, ultimately, must determine if you are “losers” in any debate? The audience could conceivably have so judged; but again, God’s judgment is the only valid one. Nor do 1 understand your fear of “creating serious misunderstandings”—for this is exactly what you did by indicating full approval of Groppi’s position. Scripture very pertinently insists, “And be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15b).

In the second place, may I be so bold as to criticize the position of Calvin College whereby it admits to its platform, welcomes, and even prays for speakers such as Groppi. You have, so you write, already discussed among yourselves this question at great length during the past years. You have concluded that you can allow virtually any sort of speaker on your platform—even agnostics. I understand the arguments concerning the hearing of both sides of a question. Yet such a policy is a very basic error. I would point out that this is true for several reasons:

First: the devil and his followers have platforms in abundance already in this world (over television and radio; in magazines and newspapers; at public gatherings); should Christians provide additional platforms for them within their schools or churches? What nation ever invites its adversary within its walls to advocate its own cause?

Secondly; Jesus said, “For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8). That fact is often seen when children of God attempt to sit on the same platform with the ungodly. Worldly wisdom is made to appear so much better than that Wisdom which is from above. You yourselves suggest this when you state, “Under such circumstances none of us felt talented enough to raise all the issues of our fundamental differences in the brief time remaining without creating serious misunderstandings.”

Thirdly: to debate with the ungodly, one must proceed from their basis: a human logic. The ungodly, of course, will never accept arguments from the infallible Word of God. Proceeding from the basis of mere human logic, children of God would likely “lose” every debate. By faith only does one believe the revelation of God’s Word. There can then be no basis for any sort of true debate between the child of God and the ungodly.

Fourthly: Calvin College deliberately places impressionable covenant youth in a position in which these youth can compare men such as Groppi with yourselves. You yourselves confess that you came out second best. Would you place the hand of your child in the flame in order to teach him the dangers and hazards of fire? Should you deliberately place the eyes, ears, and minds of impressionable youth at the feet of a man such as Father Groppi for purposes of “instruction”—yet believe that they will not be spiritually “burned”?

Finally, and decisively as far as I am concerned, there is the testimony of Scripture concerning this. Paul warns the Ephesians, “Neither give place to the devil” (4:27). That surely means that you allow neither the devil nor his cohorts a platform within the church or within any Christian institution from which he can directly address Christians. Paul further warns, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). And the apostle John states emphatically, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed; for he that biddeth him Godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds” (II John 10, 11). Your present practice violates that Scripture.

In conclusion, it is my hope that the original article concerning “Father Groppi at Calvin College” emphasized especially the deep concern of the whole faithful Reformed community concerning the direction in which Calvin College is going. The “Father Groppi” incident is not an isolated instance which gives cause for such concern. I hope too that you do continue to “keep the lecture series open to persons of the community..” I do not know if I myself will have either the time or desire to attend future lectures. Yet, should the college now close any future lecture series to the public, perhaps out of a fear of unfavorable reports, it will only open itself to greater distrust and suspicion.