As a child, David Holwerda ’53 would spend hours reading books about missionaries that he discovered in his dad’s home library. “It was my childhood desire to go to the mission field,” said Holwerda.
He followed his desire all the way through Calvin Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1956. “The divine irony is that I wanted to go to the mission field, and I ended up teaching Christian kids my whole life,” he said.
Holwerda spent more than 20 years as a professor in what was then called the Bible department at Calvin and 15 more as a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary. He was recently awarded the college’s Faith and Learning Award, presented annually by the Calvin Alumni Association to a former Calvin College faculty member who successfully and consistently integrated faith and learning in the classroom.
“When I think about my career in terms of this award, it feels like this characterizes my whole career,” Holwerda said. “I have been deeply involved in the very basic questions of the relationship between faith, science and human learning.”
When Holwerda was first interviewed for a position at Calvin almost five decades ago, one of the questions he was asked was whether the college had a responsibility to teach about science and scripture. “I said that I didn’t think that students have to choose between faith and science,” he said. “I still believe that. There are two books of revelation: God’s word in the scriptures and God’s acts in creation and history. I don’t believe these two contradict, but from time to time we have to wrestle towards a resolution of apparent contradiction.”
Throughout his teaching years, Holwerda served on numerous synodical and other committees that delved into the nature and extent of biblical authority and the relationship between creation and science. “Faith and learning was central to the discussion right from the beginning,” he said.
Serving on committees with such noted philosophers as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff and scientist John “Doc” DeVries was a privilege and helped shape his thinking on faith and reason, Holwerda said.
One assignment was to participate in the 1979-80 Calvin Center for Christian Studies topic: “Toward a Reformed View of Faith and Reason,” a study published as Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame Press), edited by Plantinga and Wolterstorff.
He incorporated his findings into the classroom whenever possible. “He was never afraid to expose us to new ideas, and he was never ashamed to confess his own faith,” wrote Laura Smit ’83, now a Calvin religion professor. “During my student years, I was often more interested in the new than in the orthodox, and he remained very patient with me through that time, gently pointing out flaws in my reasoning or assumptions I was making, while also allowing me space to explore.”
Before moving to the seminary and specializing in the New Testament, Holwerda was grateful for the opportunity to teach students from all disciplines in the required core classes. “The point was to provide a context for people majoring in other departments,” he said, “the basic context that people need both in terms of faith and life.”
Smit certainly benefited from that teaching: “At this point in my life, as I am myself a professor of theology, struggling to discover what it means to teach confessionally and with academic excellence, I hold him as a model.”
Receiving the award at this time in his life is a “blessing from the Lord,” Holwerda said. “I feel as if the award is confirmation from the Lord; I wanted to go to the mission field but ended up teaching on Calvin’s campus. Apparently, He approves.”