B. Calvin College in Relation to the Reformed Tradition
Among the different genres of Christian colleges, Calvin identifies itself as a confessional college related to the Christian Reformed Church. This distinguishes it from many evangelical Christian colleges that historically have developed around theological reactions (e.g., fundamentalism) or approaches to Christian living (e.g., pietism) that cross over confessional traditions. And although a college of the Christian Reformed Church, as a confessional college Calvin is also distinguished from those institutions whose Christian identity lies chiefly in their formal ecclesiastical ties to the denominations of which they are a part.
What does it mean for Calvin to maintain a confessional identity or, more particularly, an identity as a Reformed Christian educational institution? Primarily, it means that our approach to education is set within a tradition of biblical interpretation, worship, and Christian practice expressed in the creeds of the Reformed-Presbyterian churches having their roots in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin embraces the expressions of this tradition in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort as authoritative historic guides to our understanding of scripture and its claims on our lives. A contemporary testimony of this tradition, Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, demonstrates the continuity and flexibility of these historic faith-claims.
The creeds represent the work of the church as it sought to give obedient witness to God's Word in response to the challenges, sufferings, and opportunities of its day. Confessions, then, are formed by historic actions of a community of faith when it listens to scripture anew and recognizes current cultural realities in order to shape obedient discipleship. At their best, confessions provide a community of faith with a prophetic voice that the world can hear. Used appropriately, they are guides in a continuing common effort of reexamining the scriptures to hear God's call.
Calvin's confessional identity arises from a specific community of faith, a particular people of God who continue to seek obedient discipleship in this confessional way. This understanding also provides the foundation for Calvin's relationship with the Christian Reformed Church, which gave birth to the college out of its desire to practice Christian discipleship more effectively. As a part of a fellowship of Reformed churches around the world, this denomination forms the confessing community whose life of faith continues to uphold the college in its mission.
Calvin College is a part of a broader Reformed confessional tradition from which it draws strength. The collective experiences of other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the United States and abroad provide resources that can enrich, and in some cases constructively challenge, our understanding of the Christian identity we bear. It is with a concern for Calvin's place in all of these communities that we attempt to identify some of the distinctives of a Reformed confession that may guide our understanding of mission today.
Characteristics of a Reformed Christian Confession
It is difficult to try to organize Reformed belief around any single concept or motif. Nevertheless, there are distinctive themes that characterize the Reformed expression of the Christian faith. These include the following. God is sovereign over all of creation. The scope of humanity's rebellion against God is total, affecting every aspect of creation, including every area of human life. In divine grace God acted unconditionally in Jesus Christ to redeem humanity and all creation from sin and evil. Believers receive God's salvation through faith alone, which is a product of divine grace. The Bible is the only infallible guide for faith and practice in the Christian life. All believers stand in direct relationship and communion with God through the Holy Spirit, and are called to experience God's grace regularly conveyed in the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. All believers are called to serve the Lord as witnesses to Christ's love in every area of life and as agents of renewal in the creation.
These confessional elements may be brought together in the affirmation that, as redeemed people, we live in a covenantal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The concept of covenant implies an agreement between consenting parties. But God's covenant with us has a special character, being initiated by God alone in sovereign grace. We have been formed in relationship with God, and this intimate relationship is upheld by God's promise. Although divinely initiated and upheld, God's covenant requires our grateful response in lives of faith expressed in service to the Lord. Thereby the covenant establishes our relationships with other persons, forming us into a people who practice God's covenantal love with one another.
The Reformed confessional vision identifies this covenant pattern through the four great moments of human history: creation, fall, redemption, and fulfillment. In creation God initiated a relationship of love with everything created, manifested in the very order and pattern of what God made.
Yet humanity is unique among the objects of God's love, having been created to represent God on the earth. Human beings are the stewards of God's whole creation with the responsibility to help the creation flourish while also respecting and preserving what God declared good.
Created to acknowledge God's claims and enact God's purposes in created reality, human beings have an innately religious character. Life cannot be divided into sacred and secular realms. Right human action begins in worship of the covenant Creator; wrong human action begins in ignoring or rejecting God's authority.
The tragedy of human existence is that men and women, created to live in responsible freedom as God's children, exchanged God's truth for a lie, and served created things rather than the creator. Humanity replaced its worship of God with the worship of idols, setting personal desire over devotion to God's revealed will. The effects of this disobedience are total in scope. Since people are covenantally bound to acknowledge God's rule in all areas of life, all of human life suffers the effects of denying this worship. Sin penetrates the deepest desires of the human heart, affecting the way and the things people believe. Because covenantal responsibilities extend to the physical as well as the human creation, scripture teaches that the entire creation has come under a curse. A universal illness has been unleashed and is directed toward undoing life as God intended it.
The relationship between creation and the Creator was marred, but God's covenant promises were not broken. Throughout history God intervened in human life to redeem it. Finally, God became one with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived in obedient covenant love with God, fully revealing the design of God's image in human life. He fulfilled God's covenant promises in his death, liberating humanity and all of creation from its enslavement to sin. He restored creation's relationship with God in a new covenant by his resurrection victory over death.
Through the Holy Spirit, God in Christ continues this covenant relationship today. In the midst of all creation's brokenness, God continues to uphold the order and pattern of creation, which reveals the divine claims to all humanity. At the same time God chooses a people to receive Christ's forgiveness by faith, live in renewed covenant relationship, and enter into eternal life. God's people are to live as the visible embodiment of the covenant promises. They manifest the universal scope of divine love; drawn from every tribe and language and people and nation, they become one body, one priesthood, one church.
Through this people God declares the restoration and completion of the creation. The church calls men and women to faith in Jesus Christ, and as agents of covenant renewal the people of God work to see God's reign over the whole creation. The redeemed are called to correct the exploitation and oppression of people, to alleviate pain in the world, and expunge evil from themselves. The confessing community forms the principal witness to the awakening reign of God, and provides a vision of spiritual liberation that also requires liberation from injustice and bondage.
Confessional Themes and Calvin's Present Mission
If the preceding is taken as a summary of the major elements of a Reformed confessional vision, then certain themes may be singled out to guide our consideration of Calvin's mission. Remembering that God's calling comes to whole persons in every area of life, we believe that education should explicitly connect the way we think with the way we live. We recognize the importance of leading students to identify their own idols, whether materialistic values, selfish individualism, secular ideologies, racism, or sexism. We encourage them to see the actual faces of human suffering and need.
We view the challenges and opportunities of scholarship confessionally. Remembering that God preserves a creational order that may be witnessed in theories that are not explicitly Christian, we also remember how this is God's world, upheld by divine grace, and revealing of God's will. Therefore, we also recognize the importance of developing theories and programs of research based upon a clear acknowledgment of God's covenantal claims.
We view the challenges and opportunities to develop community relationships at Calvin confessionally. Our life together as students, staff, and faculty needs to be organized within just relationships and situations. It should then promote mutual trust and accountability, responsible freedom, friendship, and Christian love. Christ's church must be characterized by the unity of diverse persons, who contribute different formative experiences to our understanding of the faith. We affirm the goal of seeking, nurturing, and celebrating cultural and ethnic diversity at Calvin. Remembering that the church of Jesus Christ is to live as one people by his power and command, we also encourage the development of greater dialogue and cooperation with individuals and institutions of various Christian denominations.
To place oneself confessionally in the Reformed tradition is far more than to place oneself in a particular church or denomination or even a mode of worship. The uniqueness of the Reformed understanding of the institutional church inheres in its assertion that the church is a living organism comprised of believers with Christ as their head. As we form alliances with other expressions of the Christian faith, we do so as a living body of God's agency, knit together with other believers on the basis of our common confession.