The Christian Student at a Christian College

Representatives of the Board of Trustees, Calvin Seminary, Calvin Alumni Association, Faculty Members, fellow students, and Friends of Calvin College:

This faculty student convocation marks the official beginning of the academic year 1957–1958 at Calvin College. September college convocations have become an American national institution. At some 1800 colleges and universities, presidents and deans will, during the month of September, greet some 3,200,000 students with “words of learned length and thunderous sound”—to use a Goldsmith phrase. To these words of solemn warning and declarations of stern duty, students will give respectful attention, courteously tolerant only because, for the first and last time during the academic year, they will not be expected to take notes on a lecture.

Convocations at American colleges are not cut after the same pattern, for the nature of the college convocations, in each case, is determined by the academic aspirations of the institution, the type of faculty, and the kind of student body. And this is the official convocation of the faculty and student body of Calvin College. For that reason I have chosen to speak to you about The Christian Student At A Christian College, basing my thoughts upon the Scripture reading of the morning (2 Timothy 2:1–13).

In order to establish a connection between Paul’s message to Timothy and the subject I have announced, permit me just a moment in which to give you the context of Paul’s letter.

Saint Paul, the great teacher and missionary of the Christian Church, was a prisoner at Rome. During his long imprisonment, Paul’s thoughts frequently went back to Timothy, his own intimate friend and student, and to the church of Ephesus, where Timothy taught. Paul’s lengthy trial was drawing to a close, and he wrote to Timothy to bid him farewell. Paul addressed not merely Timothy, but the whole Christian community. Nevertheless, the very nature of the exhortation and the fact that it was delivered in a teacher-student relationship make it especially applicable to the Christian student at a Christian college.

This, in substance, is what Saint Paul, the teacher, wrote to Timothy, his student: “Note carefully, Timothy, I write to you in this spirit because I personally taught you. I want you to realize constantly the strength that is in you by virtue of your union with Christ Jesus. In that strength, hand over the truths which you heard me teach, in the presence of many witnesses, to students who have the ability to pass this teaching on to others, in turn. Be ready, while doing this, to take your share of suffering as a true soldier in the army of Jesus Christ. This is important, Timothy, so take seriously what I say:

–A soldier on active duty does not tie himself up with every-day affairs.

–An athlete who wants to win the contest must observe all the rules of the contest.

–A farmer must work hard before he can enjoy the fruits of his labor.

That was the Scripture lesson of this morning.

This message defines three requirements for meeting the demands of our profession. These conditions I shall elucidate under the following three captions : Preoccupation, Observation, and Occupation.



I shall use that word loosely, in the sense of engrossment. Paul employed three figures of speech to drive home his message—that of the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. Although I believe there is a deliberate arrangement in order of importance, and each figure was deliberately selected for a central idea which enriches the meaning of the passage, yet the point in each case does not lie in the figure of speech, but rather in the idea which establishes the analogy. What I mean is: Let us not spend much time turning over, dissecting, analyzing, probing, and once again investigating each of the metaphors.

Rather, let us proceed to the central thrust immediately.

“No man that warreth,” writes Paul, “entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.” The soldier is the Christian, and the one who enlisted him is Jesus Christ. We, the soldiers of Jesus Christ, then, in our total Christian profession must manifest this attitude: not to entangle ourselves with any concerns which detract from that profession. We must be entirely engrossed in, and completely preoccupied with, our calling. Paul, looking about for an analogy, thought of the profession of war-faring as the one which demanded total and unabated preoccupation with the profession. And, indeed, the soldier’s task does take a total and absolute commitment—a leaving of father and mother, and friends and relatives, and material and financial concerns. This total preoccupation with our profession must be the concern of both the student and the college, and in each case should be exercised in a personal and a professional context.

A. Preoccupation on the Student Level


Your first concern is with your personal preoccupation—with your Christian commitment.

Every Christian, no matter what his task or station in life may be, must, of course, make a total commitment to Jesus Christ. He must be completely engrossed in this commitment, for, as Christ himself said-and he enlisted us in his service—“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” Or, again: “And every one that hath left houses, or brethren or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands for my name’s sake…shall inherit eternal life.” Luke records it in even stronger language: “If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” [that is, soldier]. Christ does not mean that we must rid ourselves of all. He means, rather, that our most intimate associate, our most prized possession, our most cherished desire, may not—may never—come between us and our God. To permit that would be to entangle ourselves with the concerns of this life, which a true soldier of Christ may never allow.

Among the early Christian writers, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus summed op this thought in a famous, oft-quoted passage: “Christian are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by either country, speech, or customs…they nowhere settle down in cities of their own; they use no peculiar language, cultivate no eccentric mode of life…yet the whole tenor of their way of living stamps it as worthy of admiration and admittedly extraordinary. They reside in their respective countries, but as aliens. They take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home, and every home a foreign land…What a soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world.”


Under the lee of that personal preoccupation of every Christian with Christ lies more specifically his professional preoccupation. You are not, abstractly, just Christians. You are Christians in the context of a calling. You are Christian students. To be a student in itself demands all that any one person—no matter how capable he or she is—can bring to the profession. To be a Christian student adds a further dimension to this engrossment.

a. Negative Aspect

Do not entangle yourself, as a student, with the ordinary affairs of life, Paul exhorts you. And he means just exactly that. He means: Be a full-time student and do not be satisfied with getting a part-time education. As soon as you allow the affairs of this life to distract you from your Christian calling as a student, you are doing a disservice to that calling. When your part-time job ensnares you, when your friends and “dates,’” and doings, and cars, and sports, and T.V. monopolize your time, “when the sideshows distract you”—to use a phrase by President Wilson, onetime president of Princeton—then you no longer function as a Christian student.

This is the negative facet of your professional preoccupation. There exists, of course, the more important, positive side too.

b. Positive Aspect

To revert briefly to Saint Paul’s use of the figure of speech: the soldier, you know, does not only withstand; he also takes a stand. He not only abstains; he also sustains. So too in a student’s life, there must be positive direction. That follows when, as a Christian student, you make yourself available to guidance in discovering the Christian perspectives which enlighten your acquisition of knowledge.

That is a cooperative task, students sharing it with their professors.

B. Preoccupation on the College Level

Paul’s exhortation, “Do not entangle yourself…” comes to the college as well as it does to the individual student. A soldier does not stand alone; he is part of an army. So too the individual student does not stand alone; he forms part of a collegium.

A college has a distinctive character and a distinguishable personality. The personality of a college is, in quintessence, the sum total of the life, aspirations, ideals, achievements, and accomplishments of the faculty, student body, and constituency. It is said that a discerning person can tell a Harvard man, a Yale man, and a Princeton man. Would he be able to tell a Calvin man? Just what is a Calvin man? Perhaps you have many adjectives to describe him—some good, some bad. But what he is stems from the personality of the college. What the college is, therefore, becomes even more important than what the individual student is.

Just as there must exist a personal, as well as a professional, enlistment in the army of Christ in the case of the individual student, so too the college must, in the exercise of its personality and its profession, keep itself completely engrossed in, and preoccupied with, its essential calling.


The personality of the college, then, should express itself in a spirit of dedication to Christian learning and scholarship. This dedication should stem from an acknowledgment by students and professors that aU the instruction at Calvin must be under the absolute lordship of Christ and that our thinking is determined by the presuppositions of the Christian faith as set forth by our Reformed position. Only then can we make progress in achieving our expressed goal, of having all our class work, all the students’ intellectual, emotional, and imaginative activities permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity. Developing such a commitment is not a once-and-for-all accomplished fact. It is a continuing process. It is something we must cooperatively work at every day in a spirit of avoiding digressions which modern life would wish to force upon us. To us as a college comes the exhortation: Do not entangle yourself in the ordinary affairs of life.


Even as in the case of the individual student, so too in the case of a college, thjs Christian personality can be truly exercised only in the framework of our academic profession. Therefore, in our educational policy, academic standards, and collegiate structure we must concentrate on that which makes Calvin College a distinctively Christian college, whose Christian and academic stature is assured. It is at this point, especially, that we must take seriously Paul’s exhortation not to entangle ourselves. Here we must exercise courage, vision, and determination. Many pressures and demands will be exercised to divert us and to ensnare us. Permit me to name just a few:

(a) At this sInge in our history, the impending tidal wave of students which threatens to engulf us is the most serious pressure. Whatever action we take or do not take now to meet this situation will alike affect the character of our institution. Every step we take should be measured deliberately against growth in academic and spiritual integrity. To expand beyond our capacity to support in a material way is an evil which the modern, business-minded society can readily spot and condemn. To expand beyond our spiritual and academic resources is an evil of much greater magnitude, but one less easy to detect and one which is viewed with too much indifference even among our own constituency in this material-minded age.

We should never strive for mere size, but we should work for stature. We must provide the material facilities to enable us to do the best job possible in the service of academic interests of our Church. In this we must exercise vision and be bold and forward-looking. But we must be always alert to the fact that the academic is primary and the facilities are wholly ancillary, To reverse the two would be to entangle ourselves in the affairs of this life. Concretely, what does this mean to you as students and to those who will follow you into the college halls? It will mean that the greater the pressure becomes to expand our student ranks—and therefore our facilities—the greater will become our insistence upon students’ taking their college education seriously. The student who is genuinely interested in a college education will engender the college’s interest in him or her. The time has come when there are far too many other students waiting to take a place in the college to cater long to those who avoid the blessings and opportunities which exist within book·reach. While the burden lies principally with you as students, we as faculty must share it with you. As a faculty, we must never lose am concern for you, the individual student. In classroom contact and in administration, student counseling, in its proper framework, must become increasingly effective. I hope we do not lose the “individual touch” and that the “halls of ivy” do not become a diploma factory. May the point of a remark made by a passenger on the “Queen Mary” never be made apropos of Calvin College when he quipped, “When does this place get to New York?”

(b) A second threat to our integrity as a Christian liberal arts college comes from the increasing number of students who have developed reasons why they are not content to follow a liberal education. Afflicted by the disease of the age, Presentism—living for the present—many a student will point out that a college education costs money and that a liberal education has no guarantees of immediate material rewards. “Wherein lies the immediate transfer value of liberal studies?” they ask. In short, such a student breathes this spirit: an education without utility is an education in futility.

And, admittedly, liberal studies do not bring calculable and patent monetary rewards. But they do bring what money cannot buy. It is generally acknowledged that liberal studies give richness of mind and freedom of spirit. They bring understanding and appreciation. They make for value judgments and give breadth of perspective. When cast into the Christian mold, the liberal studies educate for vigorous and vital citizenship in the Kingdom of God, for they lift one above the ordinary sphere into the realm of extraordinary service.

We must always guard, protect, and advance a solid liberal studies program at Calvin. To make long and important concessions to short-range goals, to Presentism, and to mere utility, would be to allow ourselves to be entangled in the ordinary affairs of this life.

(c) A third pressure we should resist is to make the college a mere reflection of the culture or lack of culture of the small communities from which we come.

A college must be in a position to serve the society which sponsors it, but it must serve it as a leader. We should seek to serve our society, not by reproducing the fashions and fads and the modes and patterns of thought and action which cater to the wholly ordinary and commonplace, and which are, in some cases, not even Christian. Our sensibilities, our conversations, our mode of life and thought should reflect that we are a Christian liberal arts college with a mission. We must raise the spiritual sights of our people as we raise our own. We must ever point members of our constituency to purposes and goals which would cause them to think on those things which are more excellent.

Thus far the soldier. How about the figure of the athlete and the husbandman?—or had you long forgotten that we planned to speak of the three figures of speech? Allow me to allay your fears. The remaining two are caught up in the first figure, and therefore the burden of what I have to say has well-nigh been said. Any slighting, therefore, of the athlete is not a reflection of my regard for athletics.


The athlete, says Paul, must observe all the rules of the contest, should he wish to win the crown. This “observation” is nothing more than discipline. Do not let that word worry you. I do not use it in the sense of punitive correction—rather, in the sense of balance, control, and direction. The athlete, of all people, must be highly disciplined not only in physical fitness and behavior, but also in the technique employed in carrying on his athletic exercise. Timing and control are nothing other than discipline.

Paul, looking around for an analogy to drive home his point, chose the athlete as his figure of speech. Just as an athlete exercises discipline in preparation for, as well as in the performance of, his exercise, so a Christian student at a Christian college must face a personal discipline as well as professional discipline of the academic career—this, in order to fulfill his function. And the discipline the student must face as an individual, the college must also face as a corporate personality. Discipline is not another condition which Paul imposes upon us. It is, rather, another facet of the requirement of complete commitment.


There remains, then, the figure of the husbandman. “The husbandman must first work before he can enjoy the fruits of his labor,” writes Paul. “That which you inherit from the past you must first earn in order to possess,” writes Goethe. There is no point in belaboring the obvious. Make your own application. Paul meant the third figure of speech. merely to function as an exclamation point.


There are three conditions for a successful Christian professional life prescribed in Paul’s message to us through Timothy: Preoccupation, Observation, and Occupation. Or, are these three facets of one condition total commitment! But Paul has not quite finished. The rules arc established, the conditions laid down. But the soldier has not yet won the approval of the one who enlisted him; the athlete has not yet won the crown; the husbandman has not yet tasted the fruit.

“Consider what I say,” writes Paul, “for the Lord shall give thee understanding in all things.” This understanding is given by the sanctifying grace of God. His Spirit, working in us and among us, will elevate and transform these rules to rewards, these requirements to achievements. Sharing in that grace—and in the measure that we do—we shall all together be Christian students at a Christian college, for then we shall have laid out whole educational enterprise at the feet of Christ.