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John Van Dyk leaves a legacy of scholarship and service

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. John Van Dyk describes his work as a domestic and international educational ministry.

Even after forty years in classrooms at Dordt College, Dr. John Van Dyk has not lost his passionate commitment to helping students understand the relevance of their faith in their work.

Even after forty years in classrooms at Dordt College, Dr. John Van Dyk has not lost his passionate commitment to helping students understand the relevance of their faith in their work.

“Teachers can greatly affect the well-being of many people,” he says. “In so doing they can bring them to the Lord.”

To illustrate, he tells a story connected with his experiences with Christian teachers and schools in Central America. It is not uncommon for men to “sleep around” in that culture, he says. He’s been told by teachers that children who attend the Christian school are going home and telling their fathers that this is wrong. And fathers, who love their children, are deeply affected by what their children say and, in some cases, change their ways.

“In this kind of situation, schools can do more than the church can do not only to change people’s hearts and actions,” Van Dyk believes, “but also to affect society.”

But although teachers can help bring healing good news, they are not just evangelists. They guide children by modeling a life of joy and service; they tell them about God’s great acts of creating, designing, and maintaining the universe; they equip them to serve as redemptive agents in a hurting world.

“In public schools, too, in spite of their limitations, Christian teachers can motivate their students to explore what an ideal world would be like, what’s wrong with the world, and how we can fix it,” he says.

After forty years at Dordt College, Van Dyk will retire from full-time faculty service in August. Although his work of the last twenty years with Christian educators and schools across North America and around the world will continue, he will give up his undergraduate teaching responsibilities—and the “paper shuffling,” as he calls it, that increasingly has come with state Department of Education regulations. He won’t miss that at all.

He is grateful, though, for many blessings over his forty-year tenure. One of those was the opportunity to work with like-minded people in helping set a direction for Dordt College. Van Dyk arrived in 1966 and played an integral role in writing some of the foundational documents upon which Dordt College rests today. He was a primary author of the “Educational Task of Dordt College.”

“There was so much good collaborative energy and thinking that went into shaping this institution,” he says. That sense of working together for the cause of Christ’s kingdom sustained the college and the faculty through the difficult and the good times.

He’s also grateful for the opportunity to work with and help shape the thinking and lives of so many young people. The excitement of conveying a broad Christian perspective for living remains strong within him, as he hopes it does in his students.

Yet, with passing time he has increasing concerns about the impact of the spirits of the age and cultural trends that seem to swallow up whatever comes in their way.

“We need to continually ask ourselves ‘How does what we teach help equip students to confront these influences and help sustain them as Christian prophets, priests, and kings?’’’ Van Dyk says.

He admits that he often becomes discouraged that the materialist secularism and the success-oriented individualism of our culture are becoming harder and harder for the Christian community and its institutions to stave off.

“That is probably why I gravitate so to working with Christians overseas,” he says. “People in the Third World live in such dire straits that Christian schools cannot help but have a positive, healing impact.”

“I try not to be negative,” says Van Dyk, who is by nature a positive, caring, and affirming person. But he believes that too often Christians are more concerned with protecting their own turf, judging who is right and wrong, and writing each other out of the kingdom rather than working for it. He would like to build on what different organizations have in common.

“I have a dream of a world council of Christian educational institutions,” he says, “where we can collaborate, do communal scholarship, and deal gently with one another.” He believes that educational evangelism (by which he means more than schools) instead of militant evangelism is a far more effective way to share.

“Appreciative listening,” he believes, is a better answer to the question “How do we effectively bring the gospel to bear in a culture?”—whether that be in the Philippines or India or Russia.

“Like Jesus, we must let our light shine,” he says, adding that maybe we can learn something from the saying, “Preach the gospel, using words only when necessary.”

Next year, Van Dyk will continue to work with international Christian educators under the auspices of Dordt College. In 2007, he plans to join Alta Vista, a Seattle Christian educational services organization.

Changing Course

Dr. John Van Dyk spent the first twenty years of his career at Dordt College teaching primarily philosophy, although he also taught classical languages, German, English, and history. His move to education came out of his deep commitment to live out the term he coined in Dordt’s Statement of Purpose, “serviceable insight.” It also came as he felt doors were closing in the scholarly philosophical work he was doing.

Van Dyk may still hold the record in the department of medieval studies at Cornell University for completing his dissertation in the shortest time, an accomplishment for which he credits his excellent advisor. He was one of an international group of medieval philosophy scholars who were basically rewriting late medieval history of science. Van Dyk’s doctoral dissertation was on the concepts of time and eternity in the Middle Ages. His studies led to a number of scholarly projects, among them a critical edition of Richard Kilvington’s writing. Following his dissertation and supported by NEH and Andrew Mellon grants, he continued work on the twelve existing medieval manuscripts of Kilvington to try to reconstruct the original text. After narrowing them to two traditions, it turned out to be impossible to determine which was the original version.

Later, with Ford Lewis Battles, he began translating the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a twelfth century work on which all scholars obtaining a doctor’s degree in the Middle Ages had to write a commentary. When Battles died mid-project, another door seemed to close.

“I was always excited about teaching. I still consider my years as a high school teacher some of the best in my life,” Van Dyk says. “You only live so long and, as I tell my students, you have to evaluate your gifts and talents and serve where they lead you.”

It was not an easy decision to switch gears—professions really—after years of training. Instead of staying with a small exclusive group of scholars—doing what Van Dyk still believes to be very important work, he decided he could best serve Christ’s kingdom by working in the field of education.

In addition to the two books he has published, Letters to Lisa and The Craft of Christian Teaching, Van Dyk has given hundreds of lectures, led workshops for Christian teachers around the world, written articles in many educational and philosophical publications, and consulted with educational leaders and visionaries around the globe. His retirement from “paper shuffling” will give him the time to complete the writing of a third book—on fostering a reflective culture in the Christian school—scheduled to be released later this year.