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Expanded Statement of Mission - Shaping a College Mission

C. Calvin College in Relation to the Christian Reformed Church

While Calvin College is allied confessionally with other educational institutions and ecclesiastical bodies in the Reformed tradition of the Christian faith, it maintains a special relationship within that tradition with the Christian Reformed Church. As it looks toward its future, the college affirms its continuing relationship with the denomination that formed and governs it. Especially when seen in terms of a covenantal relationship for mutual service in God's kingdom, the benefits of this historically-proven relationship guide the future mission both of the college and of the church.

In a piece of ecclesiastical committee work cautiously labeled "Pre-advice," the Christian Reformed Synod of 1898 considered the "endeavor to organize a College in conjunction with the Literary Department of our Theological School, so that our young people, who received advanced education, no longer have to wander in various institutions outside our circles, but can be molded by our own reformed interests" (Acts of Synod, 1898, p. 57). The supporting rationale registered arguments familiar to nearly any Christian college today: the need for a "well-rounded" or liberal arts education, and the need for training in a particular tradition of the Christian faith. The notable distinction lay in the explicit sense, appearing often in random qualifications, that such training was ultimately directed toward seminary training and eventual service in the ministry of the denomination. Nonetheless, the concept of a liberal arts education from a Reformed perspective lay there in embryonic form.

Financial quotas were established and paid, buildings acquired and erected. The college itself matured as a Reformed institution of the liberal arts. Issues concerning ownership or privatization seemed to disappear into the background; as long as they stayed there, all seemed well. The world of Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church prospered apace, despite upheavals in both American society and American higher education. Until 1957.

The considerations of the 1957 Synod on the state of the college occurred at a crucial moment in the college's history, for they were tied to the purchase of and move to the Knollcrest campus. As the physical plant of the college underwent change, the very foundation of the college's relationship to the church came into question. If separation were to occur, surely this seemed the propitious moment. The heady excitement of change charges nearly every word of the 1957 Synod's dealings with college matters. That this same synod saw fit to affirm a bedrock relationship during such momentous change seemed to strengthen the foundation of church-college unity. It recognized a living relationship between two separate parties interested in a mutual mission in God's kingdom.

Showing the influence of Kuyperian thinking*, yet without a compelling warrant for complete separation of the two spheres, the study committee of the 1957 Synod distinguished between the proper tasks of church and college. The tasks of the church, for example, include 1) training of young people, 2) preparing members for Christian service, and 3) bringing the truth of Scripture to bear upon learning and Christian living. The tasks of the college are 1) to provide a liberal arts education, 2) to engage in Christian scholarship, and 3) to apply the truth to "the present situation," or the world at large.

Church and college, then, constitute distinct spheres of kingdom service with their separate and largely autonomous tasks. Yet, the college is also a ministry of the church, effecting a mission in the world by means of higher education that the church in its specialized ministry is not equipped to do. Despite their separate identities and functions in God's kingdom, a covenantal relationship unites them. Under the dispensation of grace, this covenantal relationship should be construed as a mutual pledge of fidelity, service, and support between partners, in which the distinct activities of each work for the betterment of both.

Why the Church Needs the College

To state that the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College hold a covenantal relationship is not to suggest that the relationship is therefore always harmonious. Church and college are both, after all, human institutions and have at times exhibited the fallenness of their humanity in uncongenial ways. While it seems inevitable that tensions might arise between two closely allied parties, pursuing different means to a common end, such tensions are not necessarily bad. Indeed, tensions often provide opportunity for reassessment and growth; a lack of tension may simply signal decay.

In an arena of potential conflicts, the questions of why the college needs the church and why the church needs the college acquire renewed urgency. Either for principial or for pragmatic reasons, it would appear to some to be a fairly painless procedure to sever the church from the business of ownership and the college from ecclesiastical control. To do so, however, would also risk stripping the college of a vital tradition and the church of an agency of mission. The benefits of maintaining the relationship may be understood by asking why the church needs the college and why the college needs the church.

Reformed Higher Education

The Christian Reformed denomination does not locate itself in a posture of separation from the world, but seeks to be an agent of change in the world. This world belongs to God, so Reformed people confess, and, although fraught with evil, this world may be reclaimed under the dominion of Christ. Thus the task of Reformed believers is to bring a redemptive message to bear everywhere and in all things of this world.

Under this principle of a vigorous redemptive mission, the Christian Reformed Church has committed itself to Christian education, believing that in all areas of education the task of God's people is to engage the world in order to change and redeem it. Thus, Reformed believers see education as a ministry, a means through one particular channel of appropriating, forming, and redeeming knowledge and culture. Out of such a vision Calvin College was born.

Calvin College continues to be the capstone in the denomination's commitment to higher education. Here the Christian Reformed Church says that Christian higher education is important to its mission, its tradition, and its faith. The college is a living organism effecting a historically tested vision.

The church declared that the college was to be a training ground in doctrine and faith. This was not to abrogate the task of the church to train in doctrine and faith, but to expand the task that the church begins. The college trains in doctrine and faith by engaging the world, by educating Christians beyond simple belief to effective belief, by equipping Christians to transform the world in their individual areas of calling.

Intrinsic to the Reformed tradition has been the sense of the significance of each calling-Christians called to serve God in their vocations. The college shapes that calling by finding areas of integration between faith and vocation, an effort that remains a primary educational objective of the college. Through the college the church demonstrates that the life of the mind is important to Christian living.

Outreach to Academic Communities

Calvin College has always been gifted with inventive scholars and creative intellectuals as well as fine teachers. As such, the college has achieved a position of respect, both in the community of Christian colleges and also in the larger academic world.

Whereas once the faculty saw its primary task in scholarship as educating the church, largely through such avenues as denominationally allied journals, over the last twenty years the faculty has increasingly turned its scholarship toward the broader academic community. Faculty members have served in influential leadership positions in learned societies. They have conducted seminars and presented scholarly work in diverse ways that reach all levels of academia. They have served in editorial positions on numerous journals. Research publications have become valued in the general academy as in the Christian community.

In view of its contribution to scholarship, the college represents one powerful branch of mission of the church. The church requires an academic community to effect this ministry and to build bridges to the intellectual community of North America and beyond. This ministry best occurs from the college, where scholarship is kindled daily in the classroom, and where new generations of scholars are being formed.

Mediator of Heritage

While scholarship that has influence upon the larger academy has become a mainstay of the college's mission, that task is not accomplished at the expense of a scholarly mission to the church. One area that has always distinguished Calvin College from other colleges related to the denomination has been this special task of serving as the curator of the denominational heritage. Traditions are seldom lost through tension; they are easily lost through neglect. The scholarly work at Calvin College and the teaching that derives from it provide a lively interchange with the cultural and theological legacy of the denomination. Through the teaching and scholarship of Calvin faculty, that legacy is both assembled and interpreted for the church.

Calvin College is equipped to do so in special ways. The agencies of the church are designed to do the business of the denomination, but not to maintain its curatorship. The college, on the other hand, has established specific centers of scholarly research devoted to the denominational heritage-the Meeter Center and Heritage Hall collections in particular. Furthermore, the college provides the scholarly activity of assembling, analyzing, and assessing such materials through the labor of librarians, archivists, and professional directors.

Such materials are intrinsically worthy of sustained scholarly interest. In the present case the college and church work in concert for the preservation of a special but common heritage, with the recognition of the clear gifts of the college to administer and enact that preservation.

Preparing Church Leaders

This special relationship is supported, furthermore, by the fact that a primary task of the college has been and remains today the education of people of the Christian Reformed Church. That relationship between church and college is affirmed by the fact that the sons and daughters of the denomination constitute the greatest percentage of students at the college. While respecting the broader mission of the college to higher education and society in general, there exists a special relationship between denomination and college.

That fact implies certain things about the education students receive. While it is no longer possible to assume that all Calvin students enter with a fundamental knowledge of Reformed traditions and creeds, it remains the task of the college to educate in the context of those traditions and creeds. A specific, rather than general, shaping of theological contexts and Christian beliefs influences the teaching of instructors at the college.

The college thereby provides training in leadership for the church. It instructs people in ways of analysis and in forming a vision for Christian living. It guides people toward vocations by instruction in decision-making processes and by providing the acquisition of a base of knowledge that will enable a person to act wisely and well in a chosen profession.

Christian Leadership in Culture

Calvin College also provides a training ground where believers are becoming Christian leaders of society. The college serves the church by developing the Christian mind, one that investigates freely, analyzes carefully, and judges by biblical standards. The Christian mind grapples with the world at large; the Christian college trains that mind to do so.

Especially important in this regard, for example, is training students to engage modern cultures. The classroom is a context for looking outward, for equipping students with an understanding of the world in which they live and for bringing a redemptive message to that world. The college thereby serves as a mission by the church to modern culture.

That training also, however, informs the church itself. If the college is a bridge between the church and culture, the traffic on the bridge is two-way. In the classroom, students also achieve an understanding of the way God is at work in the world generally. Through the college's semesters and interims abroad, for example, students may experience first-hand the religious activity in other cultures and various expressions of faith. As they bring these different expressions from a world community of believers to bear upon their own religious experience, the effect is often a revitalizing one for the local congregation.

The college serves as a kind of window both to modern culture and to the larger Christian church. Through this window, the denomination may observe an entire dimension of life not readily observable simply in the context of the local church. Thereby the denomination itself can grow spiritually in its understanding of the modern age, its mission to modern culture, and its partnerships with other Christian communities that share in the task.

Calvin College , then, remains a necessary and effective instrument of mission for the Christian Reformed Church. To the church the college represents not merely support for, but a deeply-rooted commitment to, Christian higher education. By means of the college, the Christian Reformed Church reaches out to other academic communities, establishing relationships impossible apart from the college. Moreover, as it values its own heritage, so too should the denomination value its college, for the college functions significantly as a curator of that heritage. Finally, the Christian Reformed Church needs the college for its important role in forming leaders, inspired by Christian belief, nurtured in a Reformed world and life view, tutored in intellectual practices, both for the church and for the larger culture.

Why the College Needs the Church

The close relationship historically maintained between Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church has bestowed a sense of special identity upon the college that is enjoyed by few other Christian colleges. Calvin College is not simply one more Christian college. While Calvin College maintains a leadership position in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and while the college maintains ties with a larger network of Christian colleges, the college also cherishes a distinctiveness based to a large degree upon its being the college of the Christian Reformed Church. This relationship with that denomination provides specific benefits to the college.

A Community of Faith in the Reformed Tradition

In an age of spiritual relativism, the Christian Reformed Church links the college to a community of faith that is larger than the college itself. Any Christian college may have its own confessional standards, guiding values, and lists of prescribed and proscribed activities to effect its beliefs and values. The denomination provides an orderly community for establishing the expression of the historic faith in the contemporary world. While Calvin College is an educational community, albeit one in which faith may be enacted in curricular pursuits, the Christian Reformed Church provides the core of a religious community of faith that supports the educational ministry of the college.

In reflection on the value of the Reformed tradition to educational pursuits, Nicholas Wolterstorff observes in Keeping Faith that "What ultimately binds us together is not allegiance to a certain hierarchy, as in the Orthodox and Roman churches; nor adherence to liturgical prescriptions, as in the Anglican Church. What binds us together is the declaration: This we do confess" (p. 17). The value of the Christian Reformed Church to the college lies precisely within the pale of an orderly, unified community that provides the basis of "This we do confess."

A Community of Values

College students find themselves at a critical point in shaping and confirming the values that will guide the rest of their lives. The avowed purpose of Calvin College is to educate in such a way that those values will be Christian ones, in accordance with biblical revelation. Such a view provides both the coherence of our curriculum and a goal for our curriculum. Its relationship with the denomination provides the college with moral authority.

Over the years the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has enacted many such decisions that guide the teaching, scholarship, and daily living at the college. For example, Synod investigated and established a position on life issues well before the landmark Roe v. Wade case of 1973. Synod established decisive moral views on how we are to consider people of other cultures and racial backgrounds, and thereby has identified and condemned the racism prevalent in our culture. Synod adopted a resolution on pornography and sexuality that addresses a major moral concern in society. These positions grant a common reference point for the frequently more pluralistic views found at the college. Thereby Synod has established a structure for the college within which further debate may occur.

A Community of Loyalty

The college needs the special base of loyalty, support, and direction from a dedicated constituency that the Christian Reformed Church provides. While the tensions that exist between both parties often receive the greater share of attention, the loyal support evidenced by so many members of the denomination should be nurtured.

The tasks of the college are education and scholarship-revealing and investigating. Frequently that two-fold task is a daunting, even lonely, one. It is less so when it is done in the context of a loyal, supportive constituency, one committed to spiritual intercession for the college. In an age of increasingly pragmatic considerations about the work of the college educator, that common bond of spiritual support becomes ever more precious.

As in the past, Calvin College continues to rely upon a common vision and a common spirit to effect its calling. The dominant historical pattern has been the Pauline concept that believers are members of one body, each performing special tasks, united in a common purpose. In contrast with the specialization and fragmentation that marks higher education generally, the spiritual unity that the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College have enjoyed in the past has been a blessing and a formidable witness.

That unity has received special emphasis under the covenantal relationship of church ownership. To the church, the college is one part of its body, one requiring devotional intercession and spiritual support.

The Christian Reformed Church, then, provides the college with a definitive Reformed legacy, an articulation of one tradition in the exercise of Christian faith. It provides a theological heritage that antedates the founding of the college, that has shaped the history of the college, and that continues to provide a framework for the activities of the college. Moreover, within biblical authority and in its interpretation of Reformed distinctiveness, the Christian Reformed Church supplies the college with a moral framework for Christian living and ethical decision-making. Above all, perhaps, the denomination supplies the college with a supportive community of faith, a sense that the college is not alone in its high mission of Reformed education but is nurtured by the prayers of its constituency, by the grace of God, and by the vigorous direction of the Holy Spirit.


While noting the benefits of covenantal relationship between church and college, Calvin College also bears a responsibility to its broadened constituency and its changing educational mandate. In this case, the sense of tradition upheld and valued must also be flexible enough to permit the college a certain latitude in meeting the challenges of the future. Calvin College now draws a substantial proportion of its student body and faculty from various Christian constituencies. Similarly, its sphere of influence extends far beyond the parameters of the Christian Reformed Church to other Christian and educational communities. Having a well-defined place to stand in its own religious tradition, Calvin College bears the responsibility to join with these allied communities to achieve its primary objective of reclaiming and transforming all creation in service to Christ and under the guidance of scripture. Our task is not to transform the world to our view, but to engage partners to transform the world to God's intent.

In a history of higher education in America replete with dissolved church-college relationships, the legacy of the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College is a powerful and enviable one. That unity has served, and will continue to serve, both parties well.

*After Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch church and political leader (1837-1920), whose ideas and vision of the cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ shaped Christian thinking in the Netherlands and beyond. [back to text]

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