by Theodore Plantinga
Evan Runner's life and legacy was the subject of a stimulating conference held at Redeemer University College on October 4 and 5, 2002. The conference brought together sons and daughters (both figurative and literal: his son and two daughters attended). And, as sometimes happens at family gatherings, there was discord, but not much, I'm pleased to say. The extended Runner family has not always been a happy bunch, but for the most part we enjoyed one another on those two special days in October.
Why the discord? Mainly because Runner's spiritual offspring have drifted into two separate camps, which we might call "conservative" and "progressive." I hesitate to use these terms because there is a certain amount of overlap between the two groups, and also because one should avoid becoming entirely the one or the other.
During casual conversations at the conference I heard people speculating about what Runner would think about this or that issue that had come up since his heyday at Calvin College in the 1950s and 1960s. Or sometimes a conference participant would say he wasn't really sure just what Runner thought about such-and-such. Could it be that Runner changed in his later years? Or did he hold to the same fundamental convictions all throughout his adult life?
I don't propose to answer all these questions in this essay. I do hope, however, to shed some light on a related issue that was also raised at the conference, namely, whatever happened to the Groen Club? And before I'm done, I will venture some thoughts about the Groen Club's tradition and legacy as it bears on the future of Redeemer College, which is in the process of setting up an endowed chair in philosophy named after Evan Runner.
The conference organizers had the wisdom to make sure there was a special session on the Groen Club. Prof. Harry Van Dyke of Redeemer was asked to organize it. He carried out his assignment admirably, demonstrating both dignity and humor. He also made it quite personal, setting the tone by starting the session with some reminiscences of his own. He had lined up a few other "Groeners" to share their reminiscences and thoughts, selecting from various periods in the Groen Club's history. I was asked to represent the mid-1960s. This essay is in part an extension of what I said in that session.
The question in title of this essay was both asked and answered in Van Dyke's session. But historical answers are never complete. After the session it occurred to me that I could have said more. Others who participated in the Groen Club session may be thinking the same thing by now. Perhaps they, too, will take the trouble to write down more of what could have been said.
I started my own little talk at the Redeemer conference by stating that I used to be an elder in the Groen Club. People laughed, a bit nervously. They realized, of course, that I did not literally serve as an elder there, for the Groen Club was not a church. I was a board member -- not an elder. Of course I went on to acknowledge these facts in my speech, but then I added that we used to act as though the Groen Club was indeed a church.
It should not be forgotten that some of Runner's followers seemed to think there was really no point in attending Sunday services. I was not of this persuasion. And Runner himself certainly attended Sunday by Sunday -- not that he was without complaints regarding the church, but he did understand the importance of corporate worship in the life of God's people.
In my prepared remarks I also stated that there was something ridiculous about the Groen Club, and that those who ridiculed it were not entirely in the wrong. During my college days I was a reader of Dostoevsky's novels, and it seemed to me that some of the fellows in the Groen Club were a bit like characters out of Dostoevsky.
Perhaps former Groeners will wince as they read these words, and so I should explain just what it was that made the Groen Club seem ridiculous. In offering my explanation, I want to back up a bit, but not all the way to the Greeks, as Runner might have done. It will probably suffice to move back a good decade or so before my own Calvin College student years (1964-68).
I hope that folks who know little or nothing of Runner's complicated relationship to Calvin College, where he taught from 1951 to 1981, will take the trouble to read this essay. Such folks need to understand, first of all, that it was that relationship that made the Groen Club necessary. Changes at the college and elsewhere in the Reformed community, which were brought about in part by Runner's own work, eventually made the Groen Club superfluous, and so it was disbanded.
Now, "Groen Club" was an abbreviated name. The full name was Groen van Prinsterer Society. This society was a student club which Runner and some students had organized within a year or so of his arrival on Calvin's campus as a philosophy professor. The idea behind the club was to create a place in which some supplementary instruction and inspiration could be offered to Calvin students who looked to Runner for guidance.
To say that they looked to Runner is to admit that they found something wanting in the instruction they were getting at the college. Such students could take courses with Runner, but unless they were pursuing a major in philosophy (which is what I did), they did not have all that much room in their program for those courses. Yet they could all come to Room 32 of the Administration Building on a Thursday evening to learn more from Runner on a non-credit basis.
The Groen Club meetings had a social aspect, of course, and there was usually a banquet at some point in the academic year. But most of the meetings were for instruction in topics basic to the Kuyperian thinking that Runner was trying to stimulate. Thus, in a typical meeting one of the students would present a wordy -- and perhaps also pretentious -- paper. Runner would say little or nothing throughout the first part of the meeting. But later on, since the topic was often too difficult to be explained clearly by a lowly undergraduate (or seminary student, since a number of them also participated), we would see a growing impatience written on Runner's face, as he wondered if and when he should jump into the discussion. He seemed to be trying to hold himself back, but, eventually, in he would come. He would often start by saying that he had just a small correction or addition, but the small addition grew into a lengthy disquisition that might well overshadow the paper itself.
We waited eagerly for those disquisitions: they were the high point of any Groen Club meeting. And we especially enjoyed special meetings of the Groen Club in which our mentor gave the paper, so to speak. Now, it is hard to imagine Runner "reading a paper," as they say in academic circles: he was much too animated for that. Even "lecture" sounds too low-key, for Runner, when he got going, was a very animated speaker who seemed to have little need of prepared notes. In any event, when one of these special meetings came along we could invite the wider college community, including friends who had expressed skepticism about the ideas of this eccentric philosophy professor. In my day, such special sessions of the Groen Club were usually held in the seminary auditorium.
For quite some time now, Calvin College has honored Runner in various ways and acknowledged his remarkable contribution to its life and to the life of Christian higher education throughout North America. It is no secret that Runner's ideas are more fully embodied in some of the other colleges than they are in Calvin itself. Back in my student days, and even more during the 1950s, certain of the Runner ideas that eventually won wide acceptance were resisted by many members of the Calvin community, including some of the high and mighty. That we should strive to develop a uniquely and distinctively Christian approach to our discipline, whatever it might be, is no startling claim nowadays, but back in Runner's day there were many who scoffed at such an objective. And they also tended to patronize -- and sometimes even scorn -- students of Runner who wanted to see this ideal realized in the classroom.
This difference of opinion about the nature of Christian scholarship (does it just amount to striving for excellence, or is there something more to it?) meant that Runner's classes -- and especially his notorious Groen Club -- posed a problem for the college. In effect, it created the impression that there were dissenters within the college's ranks. Runner's hope, of course, was that he would win the college to his way of thinking on these matters, but he met with some stiff resistance in the early years. And his students -- most of them "wetbacks" or immigrants from Canada, some even sporting Dutch accents -- often got bruised in the process.
Now, I count myself among the younger sons of Runner. The older ones have already followed their mentor into retirement; I still have a ways to go. Many of the younger sons are also immigrants from the Netherlands, but they arrived in North America at an early enough point in life as to shed all traces of their Dutch accent (or Frisian, in my case). And so it could not be said of us: "Thy speech betrayeth thee." Yet there was undoubtedly something of the "wetback" about us: it came through in our manner and dress. And so the Groen Club was ridiculed by some as a social club for wetbacks who weren't wanted elsewhere.
Most of the Kuyperian immigrants after the second world war settled in Canada. Since Runner's natural appeal was to the Kuyperians in the Calvin College student body, the Groen Club soon got associated with Dutch immigrants from Canada. This was one of the reasons it was ridiculed. Here was this man Runner, who loved to speak Dutch but was not Dutch himself, making all sorts of grand claims, when his ragtag army consisted of a bunch of immigrant outcasts who weren't wanted anywhere else.
Runner loved those Dutch immigrants from Canada who had carried their Kuyperian heritage with them from the old country. But he also knew that his message needed to take root among Reformed people in the USA, most of whom could no longer speak Dutch. And then there were the evangelical Christians who were beginning to find their way to Calvin College back in my day. Runner wanted to broaden the base of the Groen Club by drawing in such students too. But not all of his followers understood these things: some of them liked the idea of the Groen Club as an enclave for Dutch immigrants.
I found out about this tension firsthand when, as a 17-year-old raw youth, I sought a romantic partner in forbidden fields. The girl I fell in love with was Mary Masselink, a fellow member of my freshman class. Now, Mary came from decidedly un-Kuyperian (perhaps even anti-Kuyperian) Christian Reformed stock. Her uncle, Dr. William Masselink, a well-known preacher and professor, had been a student of Valentijn Hepp in the Netherlands, and Hepp was an outspoken critic of reformational ideas over there -- not just Schilder, but also Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Uncle Bill, as I came to call him, regularly warned me against Runner and his ideas, and he also pointedly rejected the thinking of Dooyeweerd. Uncle Bill had a kind of theological proof involving the operations of the Holy Spirit (derived, I suspect, from Hepp) which he employed to try to steer me away from Runner and company. Uncle Bill's younger brother, Dr. Edward Masselink, who was also a Christian Reformed minister and was Mary's father, was generally of the same persuasion. And so Mary found herself torn in two directions.
I told her that she should take her Introduction to Philosophy courses with Runner, and so she did. She also began attending the Groen Club. Runner was well aware that she came from an enemy camp, as it were, and was pleased to have her in his classes and attending the Groen Club meetings. But the other Groeners were not always so gracious and open-minded. And so she was asked on occasion: "What are you doing here?" Let me hasten to add that there were some who welcomed her warmly, but sadly, there were also those who did not. The Groen Club was not always an outfit you could be proud of. Sometimes it was small-minded and brought ridicule upon itself.
Mary maintained her interest in Runner, and throughout our life together (we got married in 1967) she was always fond of him as a very special teacher. We often visited him in retirement. She would have enjoyed the Redeemer conference on his life and legacy, but she died in 2001.
Those who thought Runner was off base found it easy to make fun of the Groen Club. On the one hand it was a rather unimpressive bunch of people who seemed to be putting on airs as they made cosmic claims in the name of Jesus Christ and talked about the most grandiose themes -- the meaning of history, no less. And yet the Church of Jesus Christ has often been scorned in roughly the same way. It's just a bunch of little people, really, but those little people make such grand pronouncements (even in the name of the Lord!) about the deepest things in human life. And so, just as some Calvin College scoffers said to the Groeners, "Who do you think you are anyway?" scoffers have said to the church throughout the ages, "Who do you think you are?"
The Groeners were out of line -- or perhaps I should say that many of them were out of line in their general disrespect toward what we used to call "the instituted church." The church was not an institution to be bypassed, nor could the sacraments be neglected. Many of us still remember how certain sons of Runner in Canada eventually came out with a publication called Out of Concern for the Church, which seemed to send signals that it was time to give up on the church. I was a graduate student by then: I well recall how Mary and I both argued against moving in the direction which this notorious book represented. We took our concerns to Bernard Zylstra, and he listened respectfully. But the book came out anyway (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1970). We were part of the moderate wing of the Runner movement in Canada, and we were beginning to become disenchanted.
The radical element won out in the short run, but over the long haul, the moderates in Runner's following seemed to win the day. We saw how his influence over both church life and the world of Christian higher education began to grow. My own career as a Runner moderate involved both teaching at Calvin College and putting my shoulder to the wheel in the grand effort to get Redeemer off the ground. It was especially at Redeemer, where we've had a number of Groeners on the faculty, that the Runner legacy lived on. And so it seemed appropriate that the recent conference on Runner, which was jointly sponsored by Redeemer, Calvin, Dordt, Trinity Christian, the King's, and the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), was held at Redeemer.
During the conference it was announced that funds have been donated to established an endowed Evan Runner chair at Redeemer. We will not know for some time who the holder of this chair will be. But it is worth speculating to what extent this professor's work might serve as a continuation of the Groen Club tradition. Through such speculation I will try to answer the question posed in the title of this essay.
So what happened to the Groen Club? The immediate or short-run answer to the question is that Runner himself shut it down a couple of years after I left the scene, when Henry De Moor (now a professor at Calvin Seminary) was its president. He did so on the advice of various followers of his who were deeply involved in its activities. The feeling was that the club had outlived its usefulness by that point: it was starting to get in the way of the message Runner was trying to bring on the Calvin campus.
Presumably there were some who thought of the Groen Club mainly in social terms, and they may well have regretted its demise. I was not among them. Although I was away from Grand Rapids by then, I continued to follow events there with great interest and visited Runner when I made trips back "home." (Grand Rapids was home to Mary's parents, who lived just a few blocks from the home occupied by the Runners.)
Runner retired during my days as a Calvin College philosophy professor. So what was he to do in retirement as he surveyed his life's work? Should he declare victory and rest content with what he had accomplished in his teaching career? It was clear that he had lived through a time of great change and had deeply influenced many students who went on to become influential leaders themselves: the Groeners certainly made their mark in the Reformed world. But the Groeners did not always play on the same team in later years: sometimes they were at one another's throats. This grieved Runner. He sided with some of them in spirit and was opposed in his heart to what certain others were doing. And I suspect he was not altogether sure how to judge the events that were unfolding during his retirement years, when he felt largely sidelined.
In my talks with him I used to stress that he needed to make his own contribution to the historical assessment of the times in which he had lived and worked. What I had in mind, more specifically, is that he should write memoirs of some sort, in which he could speak for himself in terms of explaining what he was trying to accomplish. I even volunteered to help him with those memoirs. This was no idle offer on my part, since I have quite some experience in the field of editing books. Sad to say, nothing ever came of it.
I told Runner that if he did not write memoirs, others would assign him a place in history. This has been happening: even this essay represents a small effort in that regard. There's nothing wrong with others writing about the same period and the same events: among those others were Prof. Henry Stob, whom Runner long regarded as an intellectual opponent. Stob projected two volumes of memoirs, and managed to complete only the first before illness and death overcame him. But in that one volume, which was published under the title Summoning Up Remembrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), he does manage to have his say regarding Runner and the Groen Club.
The new Runner appointee at Redeemer will have ample time and research opportunity to set the record straight in terms of what Runner was trying to accomplish. Whether he or she will choose to do so remains to be seen. The appointee might well be someone who was not personally acquainted with Runner.
Will the new appointee start a Groen Club at Redeemer and thereby seek to restore the former glory? I rather doubt it. We should bear in mind that the Groen Club of Runner's day can be described as a necessary evil. He used it to oppose the thinking and influence of some of his faculty colleagues. Runner would much rather have worked with his colleagues at the college in bringing across Kuyperian ideas.
Now, there are some who say that he overlooked -- and even disregarded -- opportunities to do exactly that. This question I will not address here: I was not in Grand Rapids during the 1950s when Runner's rocky start at the college led him to adopt an outsider's posture and to go it alone, at it were. The Groeners of the 1950s should write about this question. But the fact that Runner was so deeply involved in the founding of what we now call the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS, originally ARSS, and then AACS) indicates that he saw the value of communal and collaborative Christian scholarship. Runner would have loved to receive more support from faculty colleagues at Calvin College, and in the later years of his teaching career he got some of it: indeed, by then various of his Groeners began to join the faculty. And by the time he retired, I was teaching alongside him in the philosophy department.
The Runner appointee at Redeemer will presumably want to work with Redeemer's existing faculty as much as possible and will not wish to replicate the tense circumstances under which Runner labored at Calvin (especially during his first two decades). Hence I do not expect to see the Groen Club revived at Redeemer. We need to recognize that the Groen Club is history -- and I mean that literally
But I do not wish to end this essay on a negative note. Therefore I will reflect briefly on what I think the new appointee will need to do and emphasize at Redeemer.
First of all, I'm sure that he or she will want to find out a good deal about Runner's work and teaching. The first thing to be said in this regard is that Runner was intensely historically-minded -- hence the old business about "going back to the Greeks" whenever you asked him a question. Everything must be discussed in its historical context. Runner's answers to questions did not boil down to simple formulae. Nowadays professors are under pressure to make their ideas fit on a bumper sticker, but Runner would have nothing of that. When you asked him to explain something, it often seemed that the lecture he proceeded to deliver would never end.
Runner also had a deeply interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to scholarship. This side of his teaching might be obscured somewhat by his appreciation for the problem-historical approach to the study of the history of philosophy which had been developed by his Amsterdam mentor D.H.T. Vollenhoven, under whose tutelage Runner did his own doctoral research on Aristotle. While the details of this approach cannot be discussed in such an essay as this, suffice it to say that it leaves the historian of philosophy concentrating his studies on philosophy in a fairly strict sense of the term.
Now, Runner respected Vollenhoven's approach deeply and taught us about it especially in his course on the history of ancient philosophy. And I, in turn, talk about it in my course in the history of modern philosophy. But he also admired other approaches and told us about them. He loved John Herman Randall's books on the history of philosophy (published under the title The Career of Philosophy), and he inspired in me a desire to study history of philosophy in this manner at Columbia University in New York City, where Randall had taught.
Furthermore, he drew our attention to the history of ideas tradition pioneered at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore by Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas. Both of these approaches wove in and out of philosophy as a field. And it was to Johns Hopkins that I migrated for graduate study after finishing my undergraduate program at Calvin. I still remember how Mary and I visited Runner for a final blessing, as it were, the evening before we set out for Baltimore pulling a U-Haul trailer carrying my books and a few other household necessities.
It was also Evan Runner who drew our attention to the work of Ernst Cassirer, not just in history of philosophy but in other fields as well. Cassirer, too, was a thinker whose interest in philosophy leaped over disciplinary boundaries with ease. I have continued to draw on Cassirer's work throughout my own philosophical career, and I always think of Runner with appreciation when I do so.
And then there was Wilhelm Dilthey, who was a philosopher but seemed equally at home in various other disciplines. Dilthey loved languages, just as Runner himself did. Back in my undergraduate days, I scarcely knew who Dilthey was. But in my graduate school period, when I was in regular contact with Runner, I turned to Dilthey as my dissertation topic. By that point I had transferred to the University of Toronto. I was casting about for a topic within the general area of philosophy of history; none of my Toronto professors had come up with anything promising. One Sunday morning in the spring of 1970, I was standing outside the Taunton Road Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, talking with Runner, who was in Toronto for the weekend on ICS business. I was telling him about my grad school work, and he came up with a dissertation topic for me -- Dilthey's concept of "understanding."
Back in those days not much of Dilthey was available in English: one would have to read a great deal of primary source material in German to write such a dissertation. And that's just what Runner wanted me to do: he always emphasized that a scholar worked in the original languages and read primary sources. Moreover, Runner had urged me to study languages during my undergraduate days, and I did so, taking courses in German, Dutch, French, and Greek. Well, I loved German, and so I decided to do it. It proved a wise choice for me. Dilthey was no Christian philosopher, but he did have a certain Evan Runner broadness to his thought.
The new Runner appointee will need to be a scholar in this broader Runner sense. But he will also need to face the central question of the Runner legacy: was Runner largely successful in his battle to get the Christian colleges to see the necessity of intrinsically Christian thought in the many disciplines they teach? I believe that he achieved a great deal in this regard -- but not all by himself, of course. His younger colleagues in the Calvin philosophy department (such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Mouw) have championed the cause, admittedly in their own unique philosophical ways.
Purists may object that what these three younger thinkers have gone on to recommend by way of Christian scholarship is not exactly what Runner was looking for, and they may be right. But Runner's influence on their subsequent development can clearly be detected. In the end, of course, we should not be of Paul or Apollos (see I Corinthians 1:10-15) but of Christ. The victory is the Lord's.
I expect that my new colleague in Redeemer's philosophy department will sound exactly this note by reminding us from time to time that the victory is indeed the Lord's. Runner wanted to play on the same team as his colleagues, and that's what we want at Redeemer. We're deeply grateful for the new opportunity which the endowed Runner chair has brought us. It is our hope and prayer that the spirit of Evan Runner may long linger in the halls of Redeemer. [END]
Published in Christian Renewal, Vol. 21, No. 6 (November 25, 2002), pp. 16-18.
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