Calvin, Yale, and Hastings College

According to the Grand Rapids Press (October 31, 2007) Calvin College hired a Baptist professor of education, Dr. Denise Isom, and is now threatening to remove her tenure-track appointment. The sticking point has become Professor Isom’s refusal to attend a CRCNA congregation. She prefers to continue worshiping in her Missionary Baptist congregation. She contends that the CRCs in Grand Rapids are not sufficiently diverse ethnically. Perhaps Professor Isom didn’t know the CRC very well when she accepted the position but the CRCs are not known exactly for their ethnic diversity unless one counts a certain latent tension (none dare speak it’s name!) between the Friesians and the Groningers as ethnic diversity. The appointment of Isom has been a point of pride for Calvin. It was featured in the Calvin College newsletter, Mosaic, in 2003. The interview noted that she was moving from North Park University (affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant, a denomination with roots in Swedish Free Church pietism) but not that she had a fundamental disagreement with the confession of the college and the denomination to which it belongs.

 Whereas most of the controversy swirls around the possible change in status of the professor, what troubles one is that Calvin College hired her in the first place. It is not as if either Isom or Calvin were surprised by the fact that Isom is not Reformed. In her letter to the President of Calvin, October 31, 2007, she described herself as “someone who came to Calvin from outside of the Reformed tradition….” One is troubled because every faculty member has to swear before God and the board of trustees that they believe what the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort teach. Two of those three documents teach explicitly the baptism of covenant children and reject explicitly the Baptist position. In their extra-confessional writings, the primary authors of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism were explicit that the baptism of covenant children is of the essence of the Reformed faith and of the essence of Reformed piety and practice. There is not much ambiguity in the clause: “we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers” (Belgic Confession, Art. 34) .

In its Mission Statement, Calvin College identifies itself explicitly as a “confessional college related to the Christian Reformed Church.” It understands that “to maintain a confessional identity “as a Reformed Christian educational institution” means that their “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.”  It names each of the Three Forms of Unity as the documents to which the college is bound “as authoritative historic guides to our understanding of scripture and its claims on our lives.”  There is some vague language in the Mission Statement that might be taken to suggest that the actual content of the confessions themselves does not really bind anyone to anything in particular, e.g. infant baptism. The statement says, “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.” Given the vagueness of this language, we have a right to take Calvin at its word, that it intends to be a confessional, Reformed college.  If Calvin is to continue to represent itself as a confessionally Reformed college, then members of the CRC and those other tuition-paying parents who send their children to Calvin have a right to expect them to receive an education consistent with, respectful of, or at least not openly contradictory to, the Reformed confessions. Being confessionally Reformed gives one no special insight into botany or history but rather having faculty on campus who are not Reformed, who nevertheless subscribe the Reformed confessions (how many fingers must a Baptist cross to subscribe the Three Forms of Unity?), sends a powerful message to the students that the Reformed confessions are merely nominal and of no real significance for the life of the college nor of any real significance to the life of the students. Reports from former faculty suggest that a certain amount of finger crossing on the part of subscribing faculty has been occurring for decades.  If this is to be allowed then the good professor should be able to go to church where she will, but if so, the college must stop requiring faculty to subscribe the confessions and it must tell the Synod and parents of current and prospective students that “hey, we’ve decided to end the charade of confessional subscription.” If Calvin is to continue requiring faculty subscription then the college should require faculty to live up their voluntary subscription of the Three Forms. 

A letter to the Grand Rapids Press (November 17, 2007), written in defense of the continued appointment of Professor Isom says in part, “My personal understanding of being Reformed at this time conflicts with what the college I attend understands it to mean.” This sentence gets to the heart of the issue. In the conflict between Isom and the administration features two competing visions of what it is to be Reformed but neither of them has anything to do with the Reformed confessions. Both are entirely subjective. The letter writer defines the adjective “Reformed” according to her experience, and on that basis defends Isom’s position as a tenure-track faculty member. The administration’s defense of their policy defines “Reformed” as “Christian Reformed.” In a November 3, 2007 response to the Press, the college administration defended their right to “mission and identity as a distinctively Reformed institution of higher learning.” Provost Claudia Beversluis did not appeal to the Three Forms of Unity to define her institution. Rather, she appeals to the college’s affiliation with the Christian Reformed Church. She warned that the “history of Christian institutions of higher education in this country justifies caution” since those “Christian colleges and universities that distanced themselves from their founding denominations and theological traditions eventually also drifted away from being Christian in any meaningful way.”

Thus, Isom should be forgiven for thinking that the definition of “Reformed” is elastic and that it has as much to do with culture and tradition as with anything else. In her letter, published in the Press on October 31, 2007, Isom appealed to the necessity of attending a Baptist church in order to preserve her “racial and cultural identity….” If they are not going to use the Reformed confessions as the objective definition of the word “Reformed,” it is hard to see how Dutch Reformed folk in Grand Rapids cannot concede the point to Professor Isom. She had every reason to think that she was only following the pattern set before her by the college and many of the CRC congregations in Grand Rapids.

It seems clear that it is the “denomination” and not “theological tradition” part of the equation that is determining the nature and trajectory of Calvin College. The educational institutions of the mainline churches have been nothing if not faithful to their denominations. Calvin College has come to think of itself as an academically elite school comparable in certain respects to the most prestigious colleges and universities in North America. There are other ways, however, that Calvin may be like Harvard, Yale, or perhaps Hastings College. Harvard was founded as center for devout Calvinist scholarship but the adjectives “devout” and “Calvinist” haven’t been used of Harvard for a long time, however. Calvin may be more like Hastings College. Both have modest beginnings as small, Midwestern colleges. Calvin College was founded in 1876 to serve the influx of Dutch immigrants to Western Michigan. Hastings College was founded in 1882 in Hastings, Nebraska as a Presbyterian college to serve the Presbyterian Churches on the Great Plains. Calvin College was born in a denomination that formed because the existing Dutch Reformed denomination, the Reformed Church in America, was already deemed in the 1850s as too influenced by American revivalism. At its founding Hastings defined itself as a “Christian institution in its work and influence, evangelical in its spirit and tone….” As Calvin College identifies with the CRC, Hastings College has always identified strongly with the Presbyterian Church USA. Today the Hastings College continues “to take our Presbyterian Church relationship very seriously, even though that relationship is decidedly less evangelical than it was 120 years ago.” Hastings College, most famous for producing University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, has faithfully followed the PCUSA into modernism.

The issue here is the integrity of the Calvin, the integrity of the faculty, and the integrity of the act of subscribing the Reformed confessions, and the integrity of the CRCNA as a denomination. The new form of confessional subscription to the Three Forms of Unity being proposed to the next CRC Synod would essentially mimic the form of subscription adopted by the PCUSA in 1967. Judging by this and other recent Synodical actions it seems clear that, after ten years of stasis following the separation of the United Reformed Churches, the CRC is now determining to become a post-confessional, mainline denomination. If so, let the Synod and the College announce that fact and let parents who choose to send their children to Calvin be aware of what they are buying: a private college with religious roots in a denomination that was once confessionally Reformed. If this is to be the path of the CRC and of Calvin College then they will have joined the ranks of dozens of mainline, parochial colleges and universities including the venerable Hastings College. Even thirty years ago one might have been entitled to think of Calvin as the Jacob of the pair and Hastings as the Esau, but today, as they say, “not so much.”

If the CRC is not going to be a confessional denomination what difference does it make where Prof. Isom attends church? The CRC can’t have it both ways. They cannot deny the Reformed confession and insist that Prof. Isom attend a CRC that is practically non-confessional. If Calvin chooses to consummate this desire (James 1:14) she will not be alone. The Midwest is littered with small parochial colleges that were “formerly” devout and even confessional. Calvin might like to think of herself as a little Harvard or Yale but she might just as well get used to thinking of herself as the next Hastings College.

This essay first appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal.


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