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Calvinism

May 14, 2010

Calvinism

Can Calvinism help address the pressing issues facing the Christian community in the 21st century? It’s not surprising that educational leaders at Dordt College answer “yes” to that question, even though their emphases might be different.

Calvinism offers a big, coherent worldview that helps people take account of the issues of the day,” says Dr. Hubert Krygsman, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs. It does so by emphasizing God’s sovereignty and grace as well as his care for the entire created world. If God cares so much for this world, so should we, according to Calvinists. We serve God, in part, by caring for and about people, institutions, other creatures, the land, and everything else in this world that he made. Such a view requires us to do more than simply live piously, and it puts faithful living into the bigger context of living and working in and for Christ’s kingdom.

Calvinism has gotten a bad reputation from many people throughout the past couple of centuries. For many, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” has become a caricature of what Calvinism is. But Jonathan Edwards really embodied a warm spirituality, says Dordt College President Carl Zylstra. In his convocation address last fall, Zylstra said that Calvinism offers a forward-looking and optimistic perspective on life. Because of this growing awareness, Zylstra sees a new appreciation for Calvinism today.

Why? Zylstra believes it is partly because Calvinistic thinking offers not only a forward-looking but also a sturdy perspective on life in an increasingly complex world.

“I believe that many people are looking for a solid biblical way of thinking that anchors them and helps them form answers to questions they face in their everyday lives,” Zylstra says. “In times of uncertainty, people look for stability. After living through the consumerism of the 1990s and the economic collapse, social upheaval, and global uncertainty of the past decade, people are asking what is really true and what can they stake their lives and build their future on. A Calvinistic worldview helps us do that.”

Krygsman offers further reflection. “There is a sense in which Calvinism offers a more credible and biblical understanding of Christianity than some other interpretations.” Most biblical scholars do not find dispensational premillenialism (the belief held by some evangelicals that, at his second coming, Christ will be on the earth for his millennial reign) to be biblically credible today. And the last decade has seen growing numbers of Christians become disillusioned with an evangelicalism that authors like Mark Noll have characterized as intellectually light. Today, many evangelical Christian leaders have been at least partly shaped by Calvinist and Reformed thinkers.

But people who call themselves Calvinist today come in a variety of strains. Dr. Keith Sewell, professor of history, talks about “Multiple Calvinisms” and, in fact, is presenting a lecture on that topic at Dordt’s April 8-10 conference on Calvinism in the 21st century. Reformed Zurich, Calvinistic Geneva, and Presbyterian Edinburgh all developed their own strains of the Reformed faith. Sewell lists many influences, including scholasticism, confessionalism, American evangelicalism, and Dutch Kuyperianism, that have influenced different groups in different ways. He believes that the “neo-Calvinism” of Abraham Kuyper’s spiritual-intellectual successors gives the best framework out of which to live and act constructively in today’s world because it Live boldly. Give boldly. focuses on the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

“If growing interest in Calvinism is to be more than a fad, people need to understand that the coming of Christ’s kingdom is radical stuff,” says Sewell. He became convinced of the importance of such a worldview as a young new Christian, drawn first to a Puritan Calvinism for its intellectual depth and articulation of the teaching of John Calvin.

“But it did not satisfy because it gave no advice about how to live in the modern world,” says Sewell. Abraham Kuyper took the basics of old Calvinism and rearticulated them in terms that help Christians learn how to live in a post-French Revolutionary world. Today this approach is sometimes referred to as reformational Christianity.

Not all Calvinists share that emphasis. The New Calvinism of people like Mark Driscoll and John Piper focuses on Calvinist doctrine, drawn from Scripture, that offers apologetic certainty in a world of post modern relativism, believes Krygsman. “Some of our students are sympathetic to this emphasis because they feel it gives them clear doctrinal answers for why they believe.”

So how do Reformed Calvinist Christian people and institutions work together?

“We need to recognize the breadth of the Christian church and humbly listen to and learn from each other, but we also need not be embarrassed about the unique contribution we at Dordt College bring to those who want to live their lives as God’s obedient children,” says Zylstra.

That is what Dordt College tries to do as an educational institution: help students to  develop a comprehensive worldview that addresses contemporary issues, to see and appreciate God’s grace to them and their neighbors, and to find a credible basis for their beliefs.

Fleshing out an integrated and comprehensive curriculum that embodies these goals is an ongoing process and draws members of the campus community back to basic starting points every step of the way.

“The continuing challenge of Reformational Christianity is to take the creation order seriously—understanding that God cares about everything he made; to recognize the religious character of human culture—including art, commerce, and public life; and to recognize the integral character of Christ’s call to discipleship—that it is not a personal or private affair,” says Sewell.

“We will never be able to satisfy all of the differences between Puritan Calvinists, Neo-Calvinists, and Southern Baptist five-point Calvinists,” says Krygsman, but we can recognize that we share basic points of unity because we all affirm:

To Zylstra the best way for Dordt College to work with other Christians is not to debate the fine points of doctrine, but to apply what we believe in a curriculum that draws people together around an educational mission.

He tells people, “This is how we do it. Wouldn’t you like to join us?”

Strong convictions need to be continually refined by the Holy Spirit—and humbly held.

Even as there seems to be a growing interest in Calvinism among Christians from other traditions, growing numbers of young people who have grown up in the Reformed Calvinist tradition are breaking their connections with their churches and even their faith or being drawn to a more personal and individual expression of that faith.

“We need to make sure that our Reformed Calvinistic worldview is honest and engages the issues and questions that young people want answered. We can’t just spout clichés. That’s a big challenge,” says Krygsman.

Reformed Calvinist young people are part of their post modern world, part of a generation often alienated from institutions and organizations and often involved in their world of voluntary personal connections through social media.

The challenge for Dordt College, churches, and other institutions—organizations often led by members of the previous generation, Krygsman believes, is to find good ways to talk about the issues everyone feels are important.

Dordt College professors are quick to say that they feel blessed by the students they work with daily, students who want to grow in their faith and serve others, who are committed to social and economic justice, who want to serve God in every part of their lives.

In fact, some faculty members think Dordt College might be having a bigger impact today than a decade ago. They credit that in part to a more intentionally integrated and focused Core program, improved worship experiences, and more intentional residence life programs. 

“Our goal is to encourage students to develop a commitment to discipleship, piety, and knowledge of the Bible as they work in today’s world,” says Zylstra. The need is great and opportunities are many for young people equipped with a comprehensive worldview rooted in a strong faith to make a difference in the world.


SALLY JONGSMA

“Calvinism for the 21st Century” Conference Coming to Dordt College

John Calvin’s picture has appeared frequently over the past year as organizations and publications note and commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth.
Dordt College is also celebrating Calvin’s birth and doing so by hosting a conference titled “Calvinism for the 21st Century.”

“Instead of looking back, we want to ask where we go from here,” says Theology Professor Jason Lief who has served as organizer for the event. Conference presenters will share their thoughts on what difference Reformed Calvinistic thinking makes on a variety of social, cultural, political, and theological issues and topicsJason Lief.

“Abraham Kuyper restated Calvinism for his day; we need to continue to do the same thing today,” adds Lief. Some Calvinists today emphasize going back to Calvin’s words and writing, but conference planners want to focus primarily on what Calvin can teach us about moving into the future, continually discerning what God’s Word has to say for contemporary life.

Lief and faculty colleagues invited people who they believe are speaking to important issues in our culture from of a Reformed perspective to give the main addresses. Keynote speakers are: Dr. James K.A. Smith and Dr. Julia Stronks. Other main speakers include: Dr. Vincent Bacote, Dr. David S. Caudill, Dr. Roelf Haan, and Dr. Jim Skillen.

Sectional presenters who represent different strains of Calvinist thought will speak on a range of topics, including theology, science and law, art, education, and more.

“I hope this event leads to significant dialogue among faculty, between faculty and students, and even within a broader Christian community,” says Lief who believes that Calvinists need to keep asking the question, “What does it mean to be Reformed?”

“Not everyone will have exactly the same answers. We need to be generous and humble, willing to engage and listen. That doesn’t mean we give up what we believe, but that we try to find common ground and work together at how we should live in today’s world.”


JASON LIEF

Advanced Reformed Thought

Over the past several years, Dordt College has revised its curriculum to better reflect the Reformed vision that lies at the heart of the institution. A new Core Curriculum has been mostly phased in. The final piece to be implemented is a component referred to as Advanced Reformed Thought.

A review conducted before revising the Core showed that Hubert Krygsmanmany students knew little about the history and tradition of Reformed thinking. Many had never heard of Abraham Kuyper, much less other Reformed leaders who have shaped the tradition in which some students were brought up and in which everyone at Dordt is studying. Some students express frustration with what they call worldview jargon. While jargon and clichés are never helpful, the Core Committee believes that if students don’t concretely understand what a Reformed outlook means, they are not likely to embrace it as their own.

Although students in some majors already participate in a senior seminar that focuses on Christian perspective in their discipline, the Advanced Reformed Thought component will require students to read what Reformed thinkers have contributed over the years, not only in theology, philosophy, and history, but also in education, engineering, art, agriculture and more.

The foundation for thinking about the world from a Reformed Christian perspective is laid in Core 100 as well as in individual courses. In Core 300, students and their professors look at issues in culture and how Christians can and should respond. But other than in the Kuyper Scholars Program, there has not been a concerted effort to make sure that students read Reformed writers.

Reading the work of Reformed authors and thinkers is not catechetical indoctrination into faith but a way to help them understand how a Reformed perspective can be a good tool for discerning what the gospel means for living in today’s culture. As they do, they will be put in dialogue with other modern views so that they can make a conscious choice about what they believe and why.

“Clichés without concrete knowledge and fresh understanding can be deadly,” Krygsman agrees, sometimes and especially for students who have grown up in a tradition and take it for granted. He also knows that just offering the courses doesn’t guarantee success. Professors must find clear and fresh ways to engage students and the material they study.

Current courses in the history of Christian Philosophy, historiography, technology and society, and history of Calvinism already satisfy the requirement. Senior seminars will be reshaped to fit the goals of the requirement, and new courses are still being developed.


HUBERT KRYGSMAN

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