Protestant Reformed Higher Education

Recently there was distributed in my home church—and, I assume, in other Protestant Reformed Churches as well—what I consider to be a significant newsletter. It concerns the aims and activities of a group which calls itself the “Conference on Reformed Higher Education.” The letter went out over the name of the group’s chairman, brother Marcel A. Straayer, of our Edmonton, Alberta, Canada congregation. So that all our readers may understand the subject under discussion, I here reproduce the newsletter in its entirety:

In the past year a group of laymen from our churches in the U.S. and Canada have met several times in South Holland, Illinois, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, to discuss the possibility of establishing a Protestant Reformed Teachers’ College based firmly on the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Three Forms of Unity, and educating prospective teachers in our schools in harmony with those principles. The group agreed that this is a need since many Christian Colleges attended by our teachers compromise the Reformed tradition by the theories of common grace, theistic evolution, “higher criticism” of Holy Scripture, socialism, the philosophy of A. A. C. S. and that we have a calling, if it is possible, to work out Reformed doctrine as held by the Protestant Reformed Circles in higher education. 

Although the possibility of forming a full liberal arts college was discussed and still is a goal, the practical problems inherent in such a vision were candidly addressed. Recent meetings dealt with the more short-term goals of organizing a society and the offering of a few college level courses in the area of education perhaps taught in the summer by qualified Protestant Reformed instructors. There was also consideration of hiring a full-time qualified person to teach and develop appropriate courses. Various committees have been formed to study society organization, constitution, financing, accreditation, and curriculum. The Teacher Education Development (T.E.D.) Committee of the Federation of Protestant Reformed School Boards has been contacted to solicit their help and advice in implementing some of these short-term goals. 

We are convinced that truly Reformed higher education is a noble calling and as important a concern today as it was in 1559 when John Calvin first opened the famous Academy at Geneva with only a meager number of students and faculty. The Conference sees as its mandate the preliminary study of these goals and we intend, in the near future, to publicize our conclusions with a view to possible organization and involvement of our people. We appreciate your thoughts and prayers as we struggle with the inception of an idea we trust will improve the higher education of our children and grandchildren.

Personally, I am glad, first of all, that this “Conference” has at last “gone public.” I had been aware of the existence of such a group. And although I did not know—and still do not know—all of its constituency, I knew of a few names associated with it. I was also aware of the fact that the group met from time to time, and I even heard some rumors concerning its activities and goals. And I was interested in the cause, as well as inquisitive concerning its activities. But it is difficult to be interested in a work which remains mysterious; and it surely is risky, if not downright dangerous, to promote something about which one has no facts. Hence, I am happy about this newsletter.

Furthermore, to promote this cause is my desire and aim. 

In the first place, I firmly believe that Protestant Reformed higher education is something which is long overdue, particularly in the area of teacher training. Many years ago, when I was editor of the departmentIn His Fear and when our Protestant Reformed school movement was still in its infancy, I called attention to this need. Again, when the Federation of Protestant Reformed School Societies was formed, I participated in formulating its constitution, which from the very beginning stated as one of the purposes of the Federation the promotion of Protestant Reformed teacher training. And a few years ago, when I addressed our Prot. Ref. Teachers’ Convention, I stressed this need and called attention to the inconsistency of expecting to have Protestant Reformed teachers who receive all their training to be teachers in one or another non- Protestant Reformed institution. 

There is, of course, a gross inconsistency in our present system. In our Protestant Reformed Churches there is only one area of education in which it is possible, for the most part, to obtain a completely Protestant Reformed education: that is the area of preparation for the ministry. Today it is possible to obtain a Protestant Reformed elementary education and a Protestant Reformed high school education, and then to go on to a Protestant Reformed pre-seminary education (albeit on a limited scale) and, finally, a complete Protestant Reformed seminary education. Moreover, for years already—thanks to the foresight of our fathers-not only have we had our own Protestant Reformed pre-seminary and seminary training, but we have had our own instructional materials. Already in the early years of our Theological School our professors began to prepare our own Protestant Reformed instructional materials as much as possible. Now none of us would expect to obtain Protestant Reformed ministers of the gospel from a Christian Reformed or Reformed or Presbyterian seminary; that would be the height of inconsistency. And the reason is simple: the teachings of those other seminaries are inimical to our distinctive Protestant Reformed theology. Yet—and here is the gross inconsistency—what we would not think of doing in the area of the ministry we do not hesitate to do in the area of teacher training. When our school boards employ teachers, they expect those teachers to be Protestant Reformed teachers. You understand, I am not referring to their being Protestant Reformed church members, but to their being Protestant Reformed as teachers, imbued with Protestant Reformed principles of education, Protestant Reformed principles of discipline, with a Protestant Reformed understanding and approach in their subject materials, etc. This is what Protestant Reformed education is all about, is it not? And yet all our teachers, without exception, receive their teacher-training at schools such as Calvin, Hope, Dordt, and even state colleges and universities. And as far as being Protestant Reformed educators is concerned, our teachers have been largely on their own. I say again: what we would not think of doing in the area of the ministry, we do not hesitate to do in the area of education. 

I do not hesitate to say that our schools can only suffer from this situation. In fact, eventually this can only prove to be highly detrimental, if not fatal. Eventually, the danger is not imaginary that Protestant Reformed grade schools and high schools become institutions which are Protestant Reformed in name, but not in fact. Eventually, they could become schools which are schools with a Bible, rather than schools based on the Bible. For it stands to reason: just as a stream cannot rise higher than its source, so the education in our schools, from the point of view of its Protestant Reformed principles, cannot rise higher than its source. 

Hence, I am glad that something is at last being attempted to remedy the situation. I am well aware, as the brethren involved must also be, that this is no small undertaking. It will require much planning, much hard work, much prayer, and much sacrifice, financial and otherwise. There will be many pitfalls along the way, not the least of which will be to compromise at one point or another when it comes to Protestant Reformed principles. It will require Protestant Reformededucators, men and women who are willing to work dedicatedly and hard at developing and applying Protestant Reformed principles in the area of education. Make no mistake: the task is large. But it is by no means impossible! 

It is my hope, therefore, that there will be general support for this movement among our people. If it gets off on the right foot, it can only be beneficial for our school movement.

However, I wish to sound one note of caution to this “Conference.” 

You have “gone public” with this newsletter. 

Now you should go completely public. 

Let me explain. 

I get the impression that this group has already done considerable work, judging from what is stated in the second paragraph of the newsletter. Study is under way in the important areas of “society organization, constitution, financing, accreditation, and curriculum.” And in the third paragraph it is stated that “The Conference sees as its mandate the preliminary study of these goals and we intend, in the near future, to publicize our conclusions with a view to possible organization and involvement of our people.” 

There is a danger, it seems to me, that when it comes to the point of possible organization and involvement of our people, our people will be con fronted by a fait accompli, an accomplished fact, which they may then accept or not accept, support or not support. To my mind, this is not the proper course to follow if you wish to form a parental organization—and I trust that this is the goal. Up to this point the “Conference” is a self-initiated and self-authenticating group who have formulated their own “mandate.” If the purpose is to ask our people to share in and to support this work, then you must invite our people to participate immediately. They must be in on the ground floor, so to speak. Otherwise, I fear, you will leave the impression of trying to ram something down their throats. And you know the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Besides, if this is to be a movement of our people, then let it truly be such. To my mind the work of the “Conference” should be strictly preliminary, not preparatory of all the ground-work of a future organization. And by preliminary I mean strictly work in the direction of motivating our people, presenting the cause, and calling together an organizational gathering which will then itself take steps to study matters which are apparently already under study. 

My motivation in this criticism is not negative, but positive. Without full and free parental participation you simply cannot succeed in having a genuinely parental organization. My own experience has taught me this. Our present school societies originated in this fashion. And I have observed more than one instance in which the initial exclusion of the people at large led only to bad feelings and bad results. 

The newsletter said, “We appreciate your thoughts. . . .” Here are some of mine.