Interview: President Neal Plantinga
Calvin Theological Seminary inaugurated its new president, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., at the beginning of the current academic year. Since then, Dr. Plantinga has already begun to exercise his particular vision and focus for the future of the Seminary. Dr. Plantinga was interviewed by Chimes Editor in Chief Christian Bell on Wednesday, April 2.
What is your perception of where the Seminary stands right now?
First, it’s still the Theological Seminary of the Christian Reformed Church. Its primary mission is to serve its denomination with people who have been in trained in the knowledge, skills and virtues of ministry, and of course, to do this with the encouragement, guidance and collegial relationship of the Seminary with the rest of the denomination. That can take many forms: a person who wants to be a chaplain, a person who wants to be a teacher, a person who wants to be a regular pastor, or a church planter. We care very much what the rest of the church thinks we should be doing, and [we] want to be very responsive to its hopes and dreams for Calvin Seminary.
But increasingly in recent years, Calvin Seminary’s role has broadened quite a lot. We now have 20 percent of our students who are overseas. So we train leaders and ministers for a number of settings across the world that have only a partial relationship to the CRC. Pervasively still, our student body is Reformed, but it’s not all Reformed. We have Catholics, Baptists, and other expressions of faith present with us. So in our teaching and our continuing education and the publications of faculty members, we wish to serve the Christian church in any manifestations, not just in the CRC expression of it.
And as a matter of fact, having persons from other expressions of faith – particularly those people who see different accents to the Christian faith than the Reformed faith – is quite delightful. It gives us a bigger sense of the church, it helps to season our community with insights and observations that wouldn’t naturally occur to us in the CRC. And it’s expanding; it’s expanding to have the presence with us of people who think in ways that we have not been used to thinking before, who worship in ways that are new and delightful to us. So the [school] is the seminary of the CRC denomination, but it’s also for so many others – and I expect that that trend will continue.
How open is the Seminary to a diversity of student perspectives? Is there a sense in which it could influence and change the theological direction of the Seminary?
That’s a great question. We are a confessionally-bound seminary. Every member of our faculty signs a form of subscription; we are pledged not to teach or to write or in any other way contradict the Catechism, the Confession, the Canons. And we strive to do that in all faithfulness.
So on the one hand, you might say that our liberty is inside of some fairly study walls, and that this forecloses some kinds of discussions that would take place in a much less confessional theological setting. On the other hand, if you having real confessional roots also enables you to bend a little, because you have a certain confidence about the first things, and you are then able to consider a number of second, third and fourth things from a fairly stable platform, without having to reinvent the platform all the time. You can stand on the Confessions and then from there sort of think across the world.
So I think that the good teachers here and at Calvin College have always been the people who understood the attraction of contrary ways of thinking, and would be able (for example) to explain a heresy in such a way as to make it plausible that this attracted the hearts and minds of millions. I think that’s just good teaching. I think that we should never be so afraid of, say, losing our footing on the platform that we don’t dare to go to the edge of it and look out on the whole world and see what’s there. And what’s actually in many ways so attractive about things that we regard as errors. The truth value in an error can be 99 percent, and there’s a reason why Freud and Nietzsche and Marx had millions of followers: part of what they said was true. And some of their criticisms of the Christian faith are ones that, instead of just trying to blow them off, we need to listen to as part of our Lenten discipline.
So, our position is one of confessional loyalty and faithfulness, but with the generousness of vision that belongs to people who hope to do real education and not just propaganda.
So do you feel that being a confessional seminary is still in keeping with being able to be an academically excellent seminary as well?
I do. And I think that’s in evidence both at Calvin College and at Calvin Theological Seminary. [And] in the areas of philosophy, political science or history, some of the finest practicing North American scholars today are people with deep confessional loyalties who nonetheless are so generously and humanly educated that they are able to find magnet force in all kinds of things that finally they would reject.
Is there a sense in which the Christian Reformed denomination and the Seminary are going in different directions, or do you see them on the same path?
I would say that… I can speak only of my own vision for the Seminary and that of my vice presidents and so much of our faculty and staff. I would say that where we want to go now has resounding support in the denomination. There have been times and seasons when the Seminary’s role as the repository of the church’s confessional and theological tradition has caused tension. On the one hand, it’s our job to remind the church of our confessional and theological heritage. On the other hand, it is also our job to learn before we teach and listen before we speak, and to be in conversation with the church about how we may best serve her needs. So I think the answer to the question is that we are on the same track, but that how to proceed to our destination requires a conversation that in which there will be healthy argument that stops short of quarrelling.
Switching gears here a little bit, what are some of your major focus areas that you will be working on the coming years here at the Seminary?
We will always do classical theological education. That’s what we do. That’s what Calvin Seminary is. But we are going to have to find ways to deliver it, to provide it and to offer it that people are willing to sign up for.
We have very stringent entrance and exit requirement for the Greek programs. We are not going to lose our rigor, but we are going to find more and more appealing and efficient ways of delivering what we have to offer. For example, we require Hebrew and Greek; maybe some of the new software is going to enable us to teach languages in ways that fit as naturally as possible with how a person will actually use them when they get into ministry, so that we’re not simply teaching to an abstract requirement, but teaching to the way people most naturally and organically would use these tools when they need them.
So yes – classical theological education, but with a lot of thought now about how to adapt it. Adaptation is different than compromise; [I’m talking about] how to adapt it for settings that have changed a great deal in the last twenty or twenty-five years. It’s [no longer] just Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and then secularist; it’s Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Marin County, California religion la carte – it’s everything. So we have to teach for people who will be ministering in settings that are quite diverse and quite challenging, and some of the time we can’t foresee, so our education has to become increasingly portable t, settings that we can only partially anticipate.
How would you respond to people who would say that doing those things is watering down the education, rather than adapting it?
Well, watering down is perhaps not what I like.
Well, I’m anticipating that some people might see it as that. How would you respond to that?
I guess that I am interested (and I think that most of my colleagues would join me in this) in good outcomes. We want a person who can, for example, with a Master of Divinity degree read scripture discerningly – using the original languages – but who doesn’t necessarily spend all of his time when he’s in ministry memorizing vocabulary. He’s instead spending time in trying to find out what is truly angular and particular in a text. And [that he] has been educated in a way as to be able to say this [not only] to a conventional gathered church, but also to the Rotary club. We’re interested in having education that is a flexible and useful, [one] that will have genuine traction and power. And so I think that that means not relaxing the rigor, but finding really good, efficient ways of turning education toward its goal.
It’s a little bit like doing the new curriculum at Calvin College, which no long says “Let’s teach students this discipline,” [but rather] “Let’s teach students about the world through the lens of this discipline.” And I think that our education is more and more going to be shaped in ways that enable students not just to pass tests where they would memorize lists of formulas, but would enable them to take principles and methods and ways of proceeding and ways of dealing with things into any number of different contexts and work to good effect with them.
So the basic idea is classical theological education for contemporary ministry in a global context – that’s our motto. But a couple of the focus areas that we’re working on hard (and we talk about this in the faculty, we have retreats about it, and we write about it in the [Calvin Theological Seminary] Forum) is we think that to be a seminary in the Augustinian tradition is simply to make sure that education reaches the whole person. It’s not enough to fill students heads with theological, biblical, and ministry information; it never has been, it never will be. And the thought that we can achieve spiritual growth with simply more knowledge is a mistake.
What we need instead is to educate in such a way that it’s not just the student’s cognitive abilities that are called for and challenged, but also the leap of the heart, the responsive emotion of … longing, of desire. It should be possible fairly often for a student to walk out of a New Testament class and say, “I learned about a passage today, I believe I met the Lord today.” It should be possible for students every so often in class to have an experience you just call a “catch of the breath,” where they understand the beauty and the splendor of God and of God’s work – some new angle that startles and humbles and that causes them to leave class in a deeply meditative frame of mind.
Now I’m not saying, nor do I believe, that a lecture is the same as a sermon, but I do know that when Karl Barth wanted to describe systematic theology, he called it “preaching to preachers.” And there must be some dimension of our teaching that reaches emotion, the heart, desire—the roots of who we are and what we want. When that happens, when it’s heart as well as head, when it’s emotions as well as thinking, that is not a capitulation to contemporary, generic, evangelical focus on feelings – it is the center of being Reformed. All you have to do is read Calvin or Jonathan Edwards or the Puritans; they thought that was central in theological education.
So for years we’ve had a reputation for being intellectually rigorous, but for being a little bit cool about it. And we need to accent the “whole person” nature of theological education so that students feel engaged at all levels.
So that’s a focus area. Another is [this]: Calvin Theological Seminary has to be a place that exhibits the Christian virtues. That means, for example, kindness; it means practicing hospitality; it means that it is our job as faculty and staff to be excellent to students, to be receptive to visitors, [and] when we have guest lecturers, really to do thoughtful introductions to them. Classrooms can be simultaneously safe and provocative, but they must always be places in which students sense – almost without ever talking about it – that they’re first brothers and sisters in Christ, and second, role players in this institution. Hospitality: that’s one reason we’re going to [remodel] the [Seminary President’s] house and have a beautiful student center where students feel very much at home. Having every way we turn our face toward each other in this building and to those who come to us, we have to wear the look of welcome, and that’s a focus area.
And then finally, I believe that in years to come, we’re going to need a great big push in the area of preaching. Everybody Christian body, not just Christian Reformed people, thinks they need excellent preaching, and only some think they’re getting it. It is an area in a time of high visibility in TV of excellent communicators; it’s getting harder to gain a hearing for the Gospel when it is not presented in winsome ways. We need to find ways of doing wonderful teaching and preaching that build on our current platform of Christ-centered expository preaching; always, always we will do that. But we wanted increasingly to be excellent communicators, to be resourceful, and to have the kind of power and beauty that has a chance of finding its way to a heart and moving it.
[Jonathan] Edwards said that the reason we sing our praise instead of just saying it, the reason we preach the Gospel instead of just reading it is that we’re trying to get our hearts started. And part of that is, of course, the integrity of the presentation, part of it is the passion of the preacher, and part of it is the inherent power in the Gospel when it is prospered by the Holy Spirit. But part of it is also thinking about how to begin a sermon, how to end a sermon. How to use an old form such as, “Not this…not this…not this…but this.” Or how to invent a form for a particular kind of literature in Scripture. How to make sure that a sermon performs and has the same aim as the passage does; [if] the passage warns, the sermon can’t comfort – it’s got to warn too. So all of those things are part of a new program in preaching, and I don’t know what’s it’s going to be called or how it’s going to come out, but a lot of us are thinking along that line these days. Maybe we will have something like the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship here at the Seminary, except a little more in the area of preaching.
Do you have any plans for increasing connection with the College, and what would those be?
One of the joys of being in this position is that I worked closely with President Byker for five years as being Dean of the Chapel of Calvin College and built upon good relationships with many, including President Byker. So now it seems very natural for us to do things together. We had a wonderful “Calvin on the Town” event down at Van Andel Meusem with the Dead Sea Scrolls as the focus. That was a joint Calvin College/Calvin Theological Seminary event. We (the President of the college and I) both signed the invitation letters, which was really cool. Alums of both institutions and supporters of both institutions love it. They think that the more things we can do together the better.
I recently did a talk out in Arizona for a new chapter of Alumni in the Heritage class category – people who have graduated fifty years or more ago – and I went out there for Calvin College, not for Calvin Theological Seminary (though I managed to work in a little for myself). But the other day the president of the College and Vice President McWhertor and Vice President Berkhof brought the whole development team and the whole external relations team from Calvin College over here to meet in our boardroom and our covenant room and to exchange ideas about how we might work together and to hear about what’s happening in the Seminary these days. It was an absolutely wonderful event. And I cherish all the goodwill and the help we are getting from people at Calvin College; I want to return it and I want to find what the president more and more thinks that we can do together [in a way that is] helpful for us both.”
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship – John Witvliet and so many of his good people are here, they’re in the building; they’re helping us as cherished members of our community. That has been extraordinary.