Myodicy, Issue 24, September 2005

Reformational Movement:
Documentary Series,
Number 3:
Hellinga and Sikkema
on Christian Higher Education

What follows is # 3 in the documentary series on the Reformational Movement and Its History. Click here for the table of contents and homepage of the series as a whole.

* * * * * * *

Rev. John D. Hellinga is a Christian Reformed minister (now retired). Rev. Raymond J. Sikkema is a retired United Reformed minister and was formerly Christian Reformed. Rev. Hellinga's remarks are presented in their entirety; Rev. Sikkema's remarks have been abridged.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On September 1, 1977, the Board of Governors of the Ontario Christian College Association met to discuss its Statement of Basis and Principles. In 1982 this organization (known as OCCA) established what is now Redeemer University College. The question before the Board back in 1977 was: What is the proper relationship between such a Statement of Basis and Principles written specifically for an educational institution and the historic creeds of the Protestant churches? The meeting was opened with some remarks by the Rev. John D. Hellinga, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Guelph, Ontario. Rev. Hellinga was invited to speak to the Board because of his experience as a member of the Dordt College board as well as the Calvin College board. The substance of his remarks is reproduced below. -Theodore Plantinga

HELLINGA: First of all, I am happy that there is an attempt to establish a Christian college here in Ontario. Believe or not, Dordt College is happy about that too. Dordt realizes that if an area is to be on the map and if God's people are to stick together, a college is needed as an agency of cultural formation.

Now, the question before us is whether or not to incorporate the Reformed Creeds in the constitution of the Christian college. Tied up with this question is the question: What is the nature of the institutional church? When you raise the question whether the church's Creeds have a role to play in higher education, you are asking the question: What is the instituted church in relation to the academic institution?

As I see it, there are basically three positions. The first is the identification the body of Christ with the instituted church. According to the adherents of this view, the Three Forms of Unity would have to function as the creed in any academic institution. You all know this position; it's essentially a Roman Catholic position. Moreover, you are all aware that this position still enjoys some support among certain segments of our people. They are not at ease unless they see the Three Forms of Unity in the constitution of an academic institution.

I would say right away that I do not buy this position, because I have too much Kuyperian blood in my veins. I adhere to sphere-sovereignty! But I do want to say that in order to get all God's people behind this movement, we must bear in mind that we have people among us who hold this view. I think that is a very important consideration.

The second position is what would call the "pie" conception of the church. The body of Christ is cut up into a number of pie slices. The instituted church is one part; the school is another part; then there is the family, and a number of other institutions. According to the adherents of this position, the church's preaching functions only within the instituted church and has no relevance to the other segments or spheres of society. The Three Forms of Unity belong in the church and speak only to the institutional church, but the school needs an educational creed, while the Christian labor union needs a labor creed, and so forth.

I don't buy this position either, for I believe that the function of the instituted church is more central than that of any academic institution.

The third position is what I would call the "hub" idea of the church. That's the one I feel most at home with. You are all acquainted with it. The wheel has spokes, and the institutional church is at the center -- not as a "more important" institution but as a central institution. When the Word of God is opened, all the other spheres of society are touched. How does this apply to the question of an educational creed? I would say that the Three Forms of Unity function not only in the instituted church but have relevance for all the other areas of life.

Does that mean that if I don't see the Three Forms of Unity in the creed of a given school, I am ill at ease? No! I can go along with every word in your brief constitution; in fact, this is my type of language. I like it. But to me it is too sketchy. When I look at this statement, I can see that we will run into trouble if we don't say more, if we don't spell out what we mean in greater detail.

I do not believe it makes sense to try to build a Reformed college on the Word of God and the Three Forms of Unity alone. Any educational or academic institution needs an educational creed, in which certain things are spelled out.

We need a statement about Scripture. Scripture is the inspired Word of God. But in an educational confession, I would rather talk about revelation than Scripture, for the Word of God in creation also plays a very important role in an academic institution. We should not only say that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God but also that the creation is revelatory in character, as we confess in the second article of the Belgic Confession.

I know that there is tension in Ontario about some of these issues. This young college movement wants to start out without any stigmas. We want to get all of God's people behind us. Then I think it would be very wise to spell out few things in greater detail. And we needn't be afraid to make reference to the Reformed Creeds.

At Dordt College we said continually to the constituency: "Look, that creational Word is what we confess in church on Sunday, via the second article of the Belgic Confession." We spelled it out and the people were at ease.

Let's begin by saying simply: "There are certain things that all of us in the Reformed community have in common, certain typical expressions in the Reformed Creeds. Let's take some of these articles and spell them out for God's people and say: "Look, these are the beliefs we want to operate with". Let's go to the Reformed Creeds and find out what they have to say about creation and about man as God's image-bearer. In other words, I would like to see certain statements from our Reformed Creeds in the constitution or in a statement of principles to be worked out later. I do think it would be wise in such a statement of principles to make reference to the Reformed Creeds. That, in essence, is my position.

EDITOR: Rev. Hellinga's remarks were followed by a presentation made by the Rev. Raymond J. Sikkema, who was then pastor of Trinity Christian Reformed Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. Rev. Sikkema was a member of OCCA's Board of Governors (Rev. Hellinga was not) and was also a member of the Calvin College board.

SIKKEMA: I feel I can certainly go along with Rev. Hellinga's statement on the "hub" position of the church. I would want to begin this way. All of us on this Board want to be Reformed. The question is whether we can show our Reformed character simply by making reference to the Three Forms of Unity, which everybody believes be Reformed. Or, must we do what James talks about, namely, prove our Reformed faith by our deeds, by our actions? That is exactly the crux of the problem.

Each structure requires a confession relevant to that structure. By this I mean the institutional church, the school, the labor association, and so forth. When I say that, it should be clear that I have no difficulty in whole-heartedly affirming the central importance of the church in the Kingdom. It is the task of the church to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. This is uniquely Christ's way of spelling out what His own task was -- and what task has been conferred on the church.

I also wholeheartedly affirm that the confession of the church spells out what is central for life in the Kingdom of God, namely, that all of life is service to God.

At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers introduced a new perspective -- new, that is, in relation to the understanding of man's place in the world that had been accepted for years, namely, that man's ultimate end and happiness was to know God, to contemplate God. The Reformers, by contrast, proclaimed that man's ultimate end is not to know God but serve God.

I want to affirm that each structure needs a confession relevant to that structure, a confession that confirms what is uniquely the place and task of that structure in the Kingdom. And in each case that confession must be a response to Scripture.

I now want to elaborate upon a number of thoughts. First of all this, the creeds of the church. The creeds of the church were not written or intended as school creeds. Schools as we know them today were not known at the time of their writing. Thus they do not spell out the special directives of the Word of God for education. Paul Schrotenboer writes:

SCHROTENBOER: In some instances the creeds of the church have guided the education of the church colleges. It was thought that in adherence to them the founders and directors could undertake and preserve reformed Christian education. After all, the reformation creeds do keep Arminians and modernists out of the church! That is, they keep them out in theology, at least if they are properly used. But they have been less than successful in keeping Arminianism out of education. An historical study will show that already in the days when the Canons of Dort were being formulated and the Canons were applied faithfully (in a theological way) to the church institution, at that time Arminianism was left unmolested in the universities and soon re-entered the church. This can hardly be blamed on the creeds, however, for they were never intended to function in an educational enterprise. Their sphere is the church ....

If the second and third generation children of the Reformation had applied the creeds to the school situation, they would have found that Arminianism, inasmuch as it represents man's unwillingness to forsake fully his pretended autonomy, is just as objectionable in education as in theology or in the message of the church. If they had realized this clearly, 17th century Calvinists would have seen that the "Three Forms of Unity," with their special ecclesiastical focus, were not adequate to the situation; they would then have followed the reformational urge and returned to the Word of God to find in it the principle which would guide the life of all of man's learning even as it guided the analytical thought of the theologian as well as the non-scientific life of the church.

Christians, however, have not, until very recently, sought to formulate anything comparable to the church creeds for the life of the school. As a result, Christian scholars, when they have been asked to make a faith commitment and to express that commitment by means of the church creed, use a creed that does not speak directly to what they are doing." (Motives of Christian Higher Education, p. 3)

SIKKEMA: Then I could go on and quote to you from an article written by Dr. Donald Oppewal. He points out that the adherents of Kuyper's position understood that the Christian school needs a non-ecclesiastical basis. Oppewal writes:

OPPEWAL: On fire for the Christian school idea, these people nevertheless saw the school as much more than an instrument for the preservation of denominational purity. They saw it as a working out of the Christian idea of man and society through the study of all areas of human knowledge. It was to be a school that exhibited a world and life view. For this they required a school which was subject to no authority other than the Bible and the convictions of those who believed in it. (The Roots of the Calvinistic Day School Movement, 18)
SIKKEMA: Oppewal's suggestion for the Christian school movement in North America is this:
OPPEWAL: The real job remaining here, seems to this writer, is the translation of biblical principles into positions taken on educational questions. This series of positions, along with their biblical support, would then be the "creed" of the Calvinistic school. (p. 34)
SIKKEMA: But that job he talks about was never done (until recently) -- with sad consequences, I believe. People whose heart commitment was to the Reformed faith were nevertheless sucked along by non-Reformed thought or streams of thought -- even though they insisted on holding on to the Three Forms of Unity.

Material omitted .....

My second point is this: to rely on the creeds of the church as educational creeds is to admit that the body believers is unable or unwilling to articulate the relevance and direction of Scripture for learning -- and that with disastrous results. In The University and its Basis, Van Riessen has shown that under the influence of the separation of life into the scheme of nature and super-nature, in which science fits into the category of nature, the separation of learning from the church led slowly but surely to a religious secularization. The university, which was once free, used its rightfully won sphere-sovereignty to establish a supposedly religious autonomy. It declared itself free from faith, and did so with the consent of the church. Science's break with faith preceded its break with the church. And there is reason for that. In God-Centered Living William Harry Jellema has described the dominant ideas of Christian education in the 19th century as follows:

JELLEMA: Nor does it appear that the founders of the denominational colleges in the nineteenth century felt the need of independent diagnostic thinking on Christian premises, about the educational pattern of the Christian college. Training of a ministry once again became the primary function; for subject matter the denominational colleges took over the existing curriculum; as independent of the state they felt wholly free to emphasize the cultivation of personal evangelical Christian life; the faculty was devout. And the combination of such elements was presumed to answer the question, What makes education Christian? (God-centered Living, p. 107)

SIKKEMA: You see, then, that because the curriculum of the arts and sciences was taken over from the secular school, the idea that religion has little to say in education took root. Large segments of the curriculum in the church colleges became indistinguishable from the secular curriculum.

As we consider the question of a creedal basis, we should not overlook the work that Calvin College has done in this area. In its Semi-Centennial Volume (published 1926), we read the following remark made by Louis Berkhof:

BERKHOF: It is quite evident, therefore, that the literary department of our School was developed into a college, because it was deemed highly important that we should have an institution of higher learning that could offer the advantages of a liberal education based on Reformed principles, and that could also serve as a training school for Christian teachers. There was a laudable desire to extend the privileges of higher education to a greater number of our young people, to assist in training them, in a thoroughly Reformed manner, for various vocations in life, and to safeguard them against the pernicious influence of secularized colleges and universities. This desire was born of the soundly Calvinistic principle that religion should be all-pervasive, and should also have a determinative significance for our view of the world and of life in general. Calvinism naturally fosters education; not merely education for the ministry, but education in its widest scope. (p. 129)

SIKKEMA: Berkhof went on to affirm:

BERKHOF: Our College ... finds its reason for existence in the Reformed principles for which we stand. The great task to which it is expected to address itself, is to apply these principles in every field of study, as the nature of the case may demand, and to exhibit their bearing on life in all its phases ....

This is no small task. The immensity of it may well stagger us. And we need not be surprised, if we find that our School is still far from the ideal. But it is only in this special task that our College finds its reason for existence. It is meant to be a real Calvinistic College, and a few courses in Bible Study, Reformed Doctrine, and Calvinism do not yet make it so. Neither does the bare fact that Christian men, or even men of Reformed persuasion serve as professors. And a few sporadic attempts to give a little Christian colouring to the various courses of study, do not answer the purpose. Only a consistent application of our Reformed principles to every branch of study, making the instruction at our School thoroughly distinctive, can satisfy. (p. 131)

SIKKEMA: This is a very significant statement on the part of Calvin College.

I would also draw your attention to Christian Liberal Arts Education, a very significant volume published by Calvin in 1970 as the report of its curriculum study committee. Throughout this book, which gives evidence of a sincere attempt to come to grips with Scripture's meaning for learning, there is not single reference to the creeds.

Material omitted .....

My third point is that the instituted church does not embrace the totality life. Here the Roman Catholics are confused, and therefore they maintain church schools. And there are people in Reformed circles who wind up making the same mistake. What you then find is that people of Reformed persuasion, who certainly would not want the Christian schools to be parochial schools, make every effort show that the creeds of the church have said the final word on the basis and principles of Christian education. So, for example, Article 12 of the Belgic Confession has been quoted in support of that position. "We believe that the Father by the Word, that is, by His Son, has created of nothing the heaven, the earth, and all creatures, when it seemed good unto Him, giving unto every creature its being, shape, form, and several offices to serve its Creator ...." But you cannot fail to notice that this article, which wants to be a faithful echo of the written Word of God, says that God gave several "offices" through which man is to serve his Creator. The Christian who by faith assents to that will be directed -- also by this creed of the Church -- to now work out, and give confessional expression to, what this means for education.

Material omitted .....

I want conclude this part by asserting:

(1) A Christian college movement must spell out in a confessional way its basis and principles. If this is done in faithfulness to the Scriptures, that statement of basis and principles will in fact reflect the same desire to live in obedience to the Word of God that also characterizes the creeds of the church. I believe that our Statement of Basis and Principles does exactly that.

(2) A Christian college movement must further explicate its confessional statement with a more detailed, academically attuned statement of educational beliefs -- an educational philosophy. This the feasibility study committee attempted to do. Copies of the report it prepared are available. A careful reading of this report will show that the writers have attempted to spell out more specifically what is meant in the Statement of Basis and Principles. (Sort of like Ursinus writing a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism after the church had adopted it as its creed.) Parts of this report are included in the "blue book" and much of it is included in the paper presented to Calvin. [TP: This is a reference to materials presented by the "Redeemer" people to Calvin College officials during the curriculum consultations that were part of the process of getting Redeemer off the ground with a form of Calvin College backing that fell short of formal affiliation.]

If there is a fear that this college is not Reformed, or will not continue to be Reformed, then evidence for that should be found in those two documents. And then it must also be shown wherein these statements (the one confessionally qualified, the other theoretically qualified) are in conflict with the doctrine or creeds of the church.

To argue that subscription to these statements does not guarantee the continued Reformed basis of the college, since it will still have be shown if and to what extent the staff of the college will be faithful in working out this confession, that much I grant. But that, certainly, also holds for adherents to any creeds of the church. I could illustrate that point by referring you to a conflict between the Reformed Churches of Australia and those of New Zealand. The Churches of New Zealand maintain that any professor and any member of the Church must wholeheartedly subscribe to every word of the Westminster Confession, whereas the churches of Australia say that every professor and member must hold to the system of doctrine taught by that specific creed. So you see that differences of opinion on how to read the creeds themselves can easily arise.

To suppose that a reference to the Three Forms of Unity will guarantee the Reformed character of a college is not only a mistake, it is a dangerous mistake. The creeds do not intend to address the question of education directly. To read them as if they do is to disregard their very nature and is to expect of them a service which they cannot perform.

Material omitted .....

I conclude now with some summarizing statements.

(1) To say that the creeds of the church can serve as the educational creed of the college is to ask them to speak on more than they ever intended to speak on.

(2) To say that Christian education is based on the Word of God "as interpreted in the historic Reformed Creeds" is to say that Scripture is to be interpreted (relative to education) as the Creeds interpret Scripture on education. But the creeds do not address themselves to education. They certainly do not address themselves confessionally to the basis and principles of Christian education. They may indeed (echoing the Scripture that all of life is to be lived in obedience the Lord) remind us that obedience is required also in education. But I do not have to turn to the Creeds to discover that. The Bible itself spells that out very clearly. I, hearing that, must respond in obedience by working that out confessionally for education.

(3) The Creeds of the church are not meant to "limit" or "delimit" my understanding of Scripture. They serve rather to remind me what I, along with the church, have heard Scripture say. They are neither infallible nor exhaustive. They also serve to testify to the unbeliever: "This is what we hold for true!" If the creeds were to "limit" my understanding of Scripture, then I would have to say that the church, as institute and body, has arrived! "This is the sum total of what God is saying to His people." Then, as our understanding of various structures of society grows, we will have to say that the Creeds, written several centuries ago, have already spelled out what the people of God confessionally say about that area of life, and how their service to the Lord in that area will have to be structured and will have to be done.

And I believe that that will mean that we can no longer be reformationally busy with our God-appointed tasks in the world. To be reformed and reforming means that we must again and again go back to the Scripture. That is our Reformation heritage! [END]

Click here to go to the Myodicy home page.